A due process hearing is a trial. In most cases, due process hearings are formal, contested, adversarial trials. The parties present evidence to an Impartial Hearing Officer or Administrative Law Judge.
The Impartial Hearing Officer issues a decision. This decision may be appealed to a state or federal district court.
IDEA 2004 includes many new pre-trial procesdures and timelines for due process hearings.(See Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Edition, p. 112-118) Before requesting a due process hearing, you should consult with an attorney who has expertise in special education law and litigation.
You or the school may request a due process hearing to resolve disagreements about your child's eligibility for special education services, the adequacy of services, implementation of the IEP, your child's placement, and other issues.
States have "one-tier" or "two-tier" systems for due process hearings. In a one-tier system, the state department of education conducts the hearing and the losing party can appeal to state or federal court.
In a two-tier system, the hearing is conducted by the school district. The losing party must appeal to the state department of education, which will appoint a review officer or review panel. After the review officer or panel issues a decision, the losing party can appeal to state or federal court.
To see a realistic depiction of what happens in a due process hearing, based on a real case, watch the Wrightslaw: Surviving Due Process: Stephen Jeffers v. School Board DVD.