COVID and the 2021 Maryland Legislative Session

Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there is still important legislative work to be done. One of MCF’s priority bills this year is HB 405, Special Education—Judicial Actions—Attorney’s Fees and Related Costs. HB 405 would allow parents to be reimbursed for attorney’s fees and expert witness costs if they win their case in a due process hearing or court proceeding.

Currently, if a parent feels that the school system is in violation of their child’s rights to a free, appropriate public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and if mediation over the dispute has failed, the parent can request a due process hearing. Due process hearings are somewhat similar to court proceedings—an administrative law judge hears evidence presented by both the parent and the school system and makes a ruling. In due process hearings, the school system is represented by attorneys, who will produce witnesses and submit documentation that testify to the fact that a student’s IDEA rights have not been violated. In order to successfully counter the school system, a parent also needs an attorney and expert witnesses to help them with their case. Indeed, in Maryland in fiscal years 2015-2020, no parent prevailed at a due process hearing who did not have legal representation. Attorneys and expert witnesses, however, are costly and out of the reach of many families. HB 405 would level the playing field between schools and parents by requiring that those expenses be reimbursed if a parent prevails in their case.

So how can you advocate in support of this or other bills? The legislative session will look very different this year. Members of the public will have very limited access to legislator’s offices, and must be escorted throughout the Senate and House Office Buildings. Committee hearings will be held virtually and oral testimony will be limited.

Still, you can contact your legislator, request a virtual meeting with your legislator, and submit written testimony to committees. For information about how to stay involved in the legislative process during this unusual legislative session, go to the Maryland General Assembly’s website. There you can identify who your legislators are, get information about how to reach them, and find instructions on how to participate in the 2021 legislative session.

As important bills are introduced that are relevant to families with a loved one with behavioral health needs, MCF will send out legislative alerts to our email distribution list. To get your name added to our list, visit our web site.