Many of my clients will ask me what to wear to their child’s special education Due Process Hearing. As a matter of law, it should be entirely irrelevant to the proceedings what the parents of children with disabilities are wearing. Impartial Hearing Officers are not saying “I found in favor of the school district because I detested the mother’s hand-bag.”
But parents need to understand that these decision-makers are human beings, and as such, they will form opinions and draw conclusions based, in part, on their perceptions, if only on a subconscious level.
For example, if a school district is trying to suggest that the father never follows through on anything, is disorganized and disheveled (part of the “blame game” approach), that argument is harder to reconcile if he appears at the hearings as neatly groomed and well-presented. Do I think this is fair? Of course not!
In a perfect world, what a child requires by way of special education services is what maters, regardless of the “present-ability” of his or her parents.
But in the real world, you need to be sure you aren’t sending unintended messages through your attire. So, what do you wear to your child’s special education Due Process Hearing? I’ve decided it’s easier to describe what NOT to wear. So, here are the top three “don’ts”:
This is a formal proceeding involving a Hearing Officer or Administrative Law Judge, a court reporter, and sometimes attorneys for one or both sides of the dispute. Jeans might put you at ease, but they will not send the Impartial Hearing Officer the message that you are taking the process seriously, nor even that you respect him or her. Ditto for shorts, regardless of the weather. I would not recommend going too far in the opposite direction either, as in a three-piece-suit. “Business casual” is a good way to go for men and women.
2. Your most expensive jewelry
Sigh. Okay, here is the reality: if you are in Due Process with your district, chances are you are arguing over additional special education and related services, or even private placement. Those things will cost your school district money, which is, frankly, probably why they are fighting you over providing them. You, as the parent, are now asking an Impartial Hearing Officer to order your school district to spend more public funds on your child. Whether your child requires those services, as a matter of law, has nothing to do with your income, or lack thereof. That being said, it probably will not go unnoticed if you show up bedazzled. The Hearing Officer might think “oh, well, these parents can afford it themselves even if I don’t order it, the kid will be okay.” Or worse “why are these affluent parents trying to bilk much-needed funds from their school district when they obviously don’t need it?!”
Look, I understand that your earrings might be cubics, or the fur coat may be faux, or the BMW you drive into the Hearing parking lot might be a loaner…but for purposes of the Hearing, leave the bling at home.
3. A chip on your shoulder
By the time a parent has reached the point where they have filed a Due Process Hearing under the IDEA, chances are they have been through the ringer, and then some. If you are in this position, you probably have a dozen or more outrageous stories to share about how duplicitous, negligent, or even downright mean your school district has been towards you and/or your child. I get it. But in a Hearing, the fact-finder is supposed to make an impartial judgment based on the evidence. They don’t want to hear or see unbridled passion from either side. They want facts.
Further, one of the standard defense tactics school districts employ is to try to characterize the parents as unreasonably demanding and unable to be pleased. You play right into that hand when the Hearing Officer sees the scowling face of an irate parent sitting next to her at the very moment that the school district is describing how much they’ve done to try to please you, to no avail. Take a deep breath, and remember that you are there, presumably, because you believe the facts and law are on your side.
Trust in the truth, but remember that impressions matter.