The Illinois State Board of Education (“ISBE”) recently issued guidance addressing Homeless Dispute Resolution Procedures. This newly released document is intended to “bring clarity, fairness and consistency” to the dispute resolution process for homeless students and builds upon ISBE’s prior guidance found in the Policy of the Illinois State Board of Education on the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (“Policy”) (here). The guidance is based upon federal and state homeless laws, ISBE’s State Plan for Homeless Education, and ISBE’s Policy, and details specific procedures and “standards of conduct” to follow during the homeless dispute resolution process.
ISBE stresses in the guidance that the dispute resolution process should be carried out sensitively, should not be a formal legal proceeding or administrative or judicial hearing, and that the dispute resolution processes should be used as a last resort. While the guidance does not alter any steps in the dispute resolution procedure set forth in the Policy, it does detail specific steps and considerations to be taken during each stage of the process, including pre-meeting procedures, post-meeting procedures, and the appeal process, including the following:
- Investigations: Regarding investigations of homeless students, so long as it is “reasonable in approaching any investigation of a student,” ISBE states that a district may investigate claims of misconduct and noncompliance to ensure that only students who are legally entitled to attend district schools are enrolled. ISBE advises that investigations should be conducted sensitively and in a child and family-centered manner. The guidance also acknowledges that districts may conduct interviews of other students and/or home visits and provides guidance for conducting each.
- Notification to Parents: If the district decides to proceed with the formal dispute resolution process, the guidance specifies what must be included in the notice to the parent, including the specific reasons why the district is referring the issue for dispute resolution.
- Timing of Meeting: The guidance also acknowledges that while state law calls for the Ombudsperson to make every effort to convene the dispute resolution meeting and resolve the dispute within five school days after receiving the notice of dispute, in practice, such meetings are usually not convened within that time frame. Acknowledging this, the guidance states that the meeting should be scheduled expeditiously but within a reasonable amount of time for the parents/guardians and the district to make scheduling arrangements and to prepare for the meeting.
- Prior Disclosures: In the guidance, ISBE also calls for the parties to make “prior disclosures” to each other prior to a dispute resolution meeting. Specifically, ISBE states that it interprets its Policy, calling for the Ombudsperson to “provide the parties with any requested resource information in advance of the meeting so as to enable a full and fair presentation of their respective positions in the dispute resolution process,” as requiring the parties to make reciprocal disclosures of all materials, recordings, documents and reports relevant to the matter and held by the parties prior to a dispute meeting in a manner and timeframe so as to allow for a thorough review by each party. The guidance calls for the Ombudsperson to make the determination of the manner and timeframe required to allow each party a thorough review of the documents, and discusses when an investigative document or recording will be considered a student record that is statutorily subject to prior disclosure. It further states that refusal by either party to disclose documents shall result in the exclusion of those documents from the dispute resolution meeting.
- Length of meeting: Regarding the meetings themselves, ISBE notes in the guidance that meetings should be brief, going so far as to say that “it is difficult to imagine a legitimate reason that the meeting shall enter a second day.”
- Evidentiary guidelines: The guidance provides guidelines for the types of evidence that may be introduced during the resolution meeting.
- Standards of conduct: ISBE sets forth “standards of conduct” to be followed during the resolution process by the ombudsperson, the parties, and their attorneys, if any.
- Determination: The guidance provides that the Ombudsperson shall make a determination as quickly as possible upon conclusion of the meeting with an expectation that a final determination will be issued to the parties within fifteen business days. It also provides that the ombudsperson may be allowed to direct parties to submit additional documentation, provided each party has an opportunity to respond to supplemental information. The guidance further sets out the content that the Ombudsperson must include in the determination.
- Continued attendance and services: In light of the parties’ appeal rights, the guidance also notes that services may be discontinued after six school days of the determination if no appeal is filed. Conversely, if appealed, services may only be discontinued upon a final determination of the State Superintendent of Education.
ISBE’s guidance provides extensive information for school districts regarding the procedural and education rights and protections of homeless students in Illinois and the obligations of school districts to accommodate these rights. School Boards and Administration should contact their education counsel with any questions concerning the expanded guidance on homeless dispute resolution procedures.