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Tips on Testifying for School Personnel

By: Perry A. Zirkel (1998)

School professionals are often the key witnesses in special education due process hearings. They can make or break the case! Here are some tips for testifying effectively if the school district calls upon you to serve as its witness in such a case:

  • Be prepared.

    Stop by the hearing room beforehand or early to get an orientation to the layout of the physical site, including the location of the hearing officer, witness and advocates. Similarly, as a matter of comfort level, review the case with the school district’s attorney to become familiar with the questions anticipated, for not only direct but also cross examination. Don’t attempt to memorize or manufacture answers.

  • Dress moderately.

    Don’t over-dress; it connotes egotistical elitism. Don’t dress too informally; it may be interpreted as disrespect for the seriousness of the proceedings, which is less formal than court but nevertheless warrants courtesy and respect.

  • Be patient.

    It may well be quite a while before it’s your turn to testify. Meanwhile, follow the proceedings (if you are permitted in the hearing room), with particular attention to the hearing officer’s reactions. If you need to communicate something, send a note to the attorney or wait for a break. When it is your turn, don’t worry about being nervous. Just take a deep breath, walk confidently to the witness chair, and concentrate on what you are being asked.

  • Sit upright.

    When it is your turn, don’t slouch, fidget or face your questioner at an acute angle.

  • Don’t smoke.

    It’s illegal in most buildings and, in any event, is insulting and bothersome in the hearing room to nonsmokers, who may well include the hearing officer.

  • Don’t "complexify."

    The inclination often is to overdo your introduction and answers with erudite detail and technical terms. The purpose is to communicate effectively with the hearing officer; being confusing or condescending will only lead to alienation, not persuasion.

  • Tell the truth.

    Being honest as well as natural, confident and direct will affirm your credibility.

  • Listen carefully.

    The key to giving an answer is understanding the question. If you reasonably don’t understand, say so, but giving answers that are nonresponsive to the question also helps crumble credibility.

  • Respond succinctly.

    The questioning process is designed to elicit the testimony. Don’t volunteer information on direct examination, but don’t be trapped in yes-no questions on cross-examination when an intermediate or explanatory answer is warranted.

  • Be reasonably firm.

    Don’t be bullied by the opposing attorney, while not being goaded into an argument. If you don’t remember a fact that is being asked, say so.

  • Keep cool.

    Although you don’t want to make light of the proceedings, being over-emotional, defensive, combative or nasty detracts from your credibility.

  • Be willing to share.

    If you bring notes to the proceeding, even just as a memory aid for your testimony, the other

  • Don’t forget the hearing officer.

    Although you should look your questioner in the eye, glance occasionally at the hearing officer to make sure that your testimony is have the desired impact. Be sensitive to body language, both yours and the hearing officer’s.

Resources

Brodsky, S.L. (1991).Testifying in court. Guidelines and maxims for the expert witness. Washington,
DC: American Psychological Association.

Jacob-Timm, S. & Hartshorne, T. (1998). Ethics and law for school psychologists (third edition). New York: John Wiley.

Stumme, J.M. (1995). Best practices in serving as an expert witness. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes, Eds., Best practices in school psychology-111 (pp. 179-190). Bethesda, MID: National Association of School Psychologists.

About the author:

Dr. Perry A. Zirkel is Iacocca Professor of Education at Lehigh University (Bethlehem, PA). Co- chair of Pennsylvania’s appeals panel for special education cases, he has trained hearing officers and is a frequent presenter on special education law.

Perry A. Zirkel, Lehigh University, Communique, newsletter of the National Association of School Psychologists October 1998