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Special-education litigation begins, under the terms of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), with an “impartial due process” proceeding. States enjoy limited discretion to establish the manner by which they will effectuate this process. Variations in implementation exist. Most states offer a “single-tiered” process, and eight offer a “two-tiered” proceeding.

National debate about the effectiveness of these administrative proceedings has increased over the last decade. One contested question is whether a single-tiered or two-tiered administrative process better serves the objectives of the Act.

Meaningful empirical examination of these specialized proceedings has begun to inform this debate, but significant research gaps remain. No quantitative study of these processes exists for many states’ systems, including for North Carolina’s, a system with a unique two-tiered process. This Article begins to fill this research void.

It offers an empirical evaluation of first-tier decisions issued over a 12-year period in North Carolina’s special-education due-process proceedings. It identifies statistically significant due-process implementation and outcome trends. It also evaluates the impact of factors intuitively believed to matter in these cases. Examples of variables considered include the availability of pre-hearing mediation, changes in relevant statutory standards, type of disability accommodated, age of the child at issue, type of school, setting in which the dispute arose (rural or urban), and petitioners’ representation status.

This analysis debunks some popular conceptions about these unique administrative proceedings, and it affirms the validity of others. It identifies one variable, legal representation during the first-tier review, as most significantly correlated with favorable outcomes for children with disabilities at this stage of litigation. Ultimately, it contributes new empirical data to the national conversation about outcomes of first-tier hearings in two-tiered due-process procedures under the IDEA.

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