School District Employee Cannot Be 504 Hearing or Review Officer

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Section 504 requires school districts to provide a process for parents to resolve disputes regarding services provided under Section 504. At 34 CFR 104.36 the 504 regulations state that process must include "an impartial hearing with opportunity for participation by the person's parents or guardian and representation by counsel, and a review procedure.individual conducting the hearing or review must be impartial."

Section 504 also requires that school district's designate an individual to be a 504 Coordinator. In Mathews County (VA) Pub. Schs., 114 LRP 42768 (OCR 04/09/14), the school district 's 504 Coordinator was also the hearing officer designated to resolve 504 disputes. After a parent filed a complaint, the Office for Civll Rights determined the 504 Coordinator could not also serve as the hearing officer stating:

"OCR has consistently interpreted the impartiality requirement of 34 C.F.R. § 104.36 to bar school district employees and district officials, including school district board members, from serving as hearing or review officers....Because of their professional and financial relationship with the district and the potentially large financial consequences to the district that may result from a Section 504 hearing, district employees and board members cannot be considered neutral, disinterested fact finders."

Moreover, "An employee such as a 504 Coordinator, in particular, cannot be expected to be impartial when policies developed and/or administered by that employee or decisions he or she made and/or approved could be at the heart of the dispute. "

The Office for Civil Rights distinguished 504 from other types of hearings:

"...Section 504 hearings differ from other types of hearings, such as disciplinary hearings, where administrators and board members may be empowered to act as hearing officers because the disputed issues require only consideration of the institution's own policies. In Section 504 hearings, in contrast, the hearing officer must construe independent legal standards and may be called upon to conclude that the district's policies and procedures conflict with Federal law."

To resolve the complaint OCR required that the district develop a hearing and review process that was impartial. The district must submit that process for OCR's approval and OCR would monitor the implementation of that process.