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WashingtonLawHelp.orgWashington LawHelp

How to File a Special Education Citizen Complaint

Authored By: Northwest Justice Project LSC Funded
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Read this if you are concerned about a child’s special education and wants to file a formal complaint. #1310EN


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Who is this for?

Someone who is concerned about their child's special education and wants to file a formal complaint.  

What will you learn by reading it?

  • How to file a formal Citizen Complaint against a school district or other agency

  • Other formal complaint options

  • Where to find legal help

What is a Special Education Citizen Complaint?

If a school district or other state agency violates (breaks) a state or federal special education law or rule, you can make a formal written complaint, called a Special Education Citizen Complaint.

You can also file a Citizen Complaint if a school district or other state agency fails to comply with (follow) a mediation or resolution agreement.

Citizen Complaints can be filed against these agencies:

  • the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI)

  • an educational service district

  • a school district

  • a public agency serving special education students, including Washington public charter schools.

Is there a deadline to file a Citizen Complaint? 

You have 1 year to file a Citizen Complaint after the violation or problem happens. If a school district or other agency violates a law or breaks a term of a mediation agreement, you have 1 year from when that happened to file your Citizen Complaint.

Do I have to use a special form to make a Citizen Complaint?

A Citizen Complaint must be in writing. You must sign it. You can use your own paper.

You must include all the info listed below.   

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) has a form you can use (but you do not have to). OSPI has forms in several languages and instructions.

What must my Citizen Complaint say?

First, you must put your name, address and other contact info. You must put contact info for the special education student too.

The complaint must also state the name of the school district or agency you believe has done something wrong.

Your complaint must also state that the school district or other agency violated the law or an agreement. It should state that the school district violated at least 1 requirement of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or that the agency is not following a mediation or resolution agreement.

*You do not need to know the exact rule or law you think is being violated. Just describe what you believe the school district is doing wrong. OSPI should identify the issue for investigation.

Your complaint should also give a detailed timeline of factual events.    

Start with a general statement of the problem. Then start with the very first thing that happened. Describe the situation step by step up to the date you are writing the complaint. 

For example, if you had a conversation with a school administrator about your child's education, put the date and time, if possible, when the conversation happened, and what everyone said. Then put what happened next.

If there are important documents (for example, letters from the school or your child's Individual Education Plan (IEP), state the names of those important documents.

It is important to include enough info so OSPI can decide whether to investigate or not. 

Finally, you must propose a solution to the problem. What would you like to see changed? Put what you want to see happen.

Where do I send the completed Citizen Complaint?

After you have written your complaint, you must send it to OSPI and send a copy to the school district's superintendent or the public agency's chief officer. If your complaint is against a charter school, send a copy to the charter school's principal.

The complaint must list the date you mailed or delivered a copy of the complaint to the school district superintendent, public agency's chief officer, or charter school's principal.

If you do not know the address of the superintendent or head of the agency or charter school, call them to ask where to send Citizen Complaints.

You can also go to this OSPI website to look up a school district's info: www.k12.wa.us/Maps/SDmainmap.aspx

To look up info about Washington's charter schools, use this website: wacharters.org/schools/

Keep a copy of the Complaint for your records.

Then mail or fax your complaint to OSPI at:

Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction

Attn: Special Education
P.O. Box 47200
Olympia, WA 98504-7200
Fax: (360) 586-0247

What happens after I file a Citizen Complaint?

First, OSPI will review your complaint and supporting documents. It will decide if your complaint alleges a possible violation of law or agreement that requires a formal investigation.

If OPSI decides the allegations in your complaint do not show a possible violation, OSPI will contact you by letter to explain why they are not going to investigate.

If OSPI decides the allegations show a possible violation of law or agreement, OSPI will open a formal investigation.

What happens in an OSPI investigation?

First, OSPI will confirm the issues for investigation and send a letter to the school district or agency to tell the district that OSPI has opened a complaint investigation.
OSPI will ask the school district or agency to give a written response and supporting documentation.

The school district or agency has 20 days to respond to the issues identified for investigation.

Then, OSPI should review the response and mail you a copy of the response. This response will include the name and contact info of the OSPI investigator assigned to your complaint. 

Once you get a copy of the response from the school district or agency, you have only 10 calendar days to reply to their response with any additional info.

If you need more than 10 days to respond, contact the OSPI investigator as soon as possible to ask for an extension. You must explain why you need more time. After reviewing your request for extension, OSPI may grant you an extension.

OSPI will then review all the info you and the school district or agency gave to OSPI.

Sometimes, OSPI will ask you, the school district, or the agency to clarify info or provide more info.

How long will the investigation take?

Within 60 days of the date you filed your complaint, OSPI should mail a written decision to you and the school district or agency.

OSPI can extend this time if there are exceptional circumstances. 

Also, you and the school district or agency can agree in writing to extend the timelines to resolve the dispute through an alternative dispute resolution process, such as mediation.

What can OSPI do if it finds a violation?

OSPI can order remedies for just one student or for an entire school district or agency.

Ultimately, the solution OSPI orders will be based on the nature of the circumstances behind a complaint.

You can find decisions from other Citizen Complaints online.

OSPI keeps an online record of summaries and copies of decisions from other people's Citizen Complaints.

You may have other options to formally complain about special education services.

You may also have the right to ask for a Due Process Hearing. This is different than OSPI conducting an investigation.

In a Due Process Hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) conducts a hearing on issues about the identification, evaluation, educational placement or provision of a Free Appropriate Public Education of a student. 

Should I file a Citizen Complaint or ask for a Due Process Hearing?

First, it depends on the reason for your complaint. Second, the two options have different eligibility requirements. 

You have the right to file a Citizen Complaint if your complaint relates to a violation of a special education law or rule or failure to comply with a mediation or resolution agreement.

You have the right to ask for a Due Process Hearing if your complaint relates to the identification, evaluation or educational placement of a student or the provision of a Free Appropriate Public Education.

A Citizen Complaint is an investigation conducted by the OSPI, based mainly on documents: your complaint, letters, other papers from you and the school district or agency.

A Due Process Hearing is a formal legal proceeding in front of a judge (an ALJ). The ALJ looks at evidence such as written documents, and also witnesses. Witnesses can testify for you or for the school district or agency.   

If you want to ask for a Due Process Hearing, try to get legal help as soon as possible.

What if a school district is discriminating against a student?

If you believe a school district has discriminated against a student because of the student's disability, contact the OSPI Equity and Civil Rights Office and/or the US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights:

Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction
Equity and Civil Rights Office
P.O. Box 47200
Olympia, WA 98504-7200
Phone: 360-725-6162
FAX: 360-664-2967        
TTY: 360-664-3631
Email: equity@k12.wa.us

U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights
915 Second Avenue, Room 3310
Seattle, WA 98174-1099
Phone: 206-607-1600        
TDD: 206-607-1601
Email: OCR.Seattle@ed.gov

Get Legal Help

Visit Northwest Justice Project to find out how to get legal help.



This publication provides general information concerning your rights and responsibilities. It is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice.This information is current as of November 2019.


© 2019 Northwest Justice Project — 1-888-201-1014.
(Permission for copying and distribution granted the Alliance for Equal Justice and to individuals for non-commercial purposes only.)


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Last Review and Update: Nov 15, 2019