The mediation process in the public school system can be a powerful resource for parents, but it can also be intimidating as well. Although the mediation process can be intimidating for parents, mediation provides an environment for open communication between parents and school district personnel.
An informed and involved parent is vital to the success of their child’s special education program. All too often, I have heard parents say that they weren’t aware of what is in their child’s curriculum. When the finally decided to pay a visit to their child’s class, the special education instructor had nothing to offer the parent for what their child is supposed to be learning. I must make this clear that there are plenty of excellent and qualified special education instructors that keep excellent records and open communication lines for parents. Federal laws and Washington State regulations enable a parent to play an important role in the special education process. The parents make an important contribution to the child’s education by sharing what they know about their child and help make decisions instead of handing over the educational decisions to the professionals.
A parent’s decision should based on knowledge and understanding of their rights and responsibilities. This requires trust and open communication with the school district. If problems and misunderstandings do arise, there are several ways to address them.
First, a parent may want to talk with the school personnel directly involved with the problem and discuss their concerns. If problems and misunderstandings do arise, there are several ways to address them. First, a parent may want to talk with the school personnel directly involved with the problem and discuss their concerns. If the problem is not resolved, they may request a mediation meeting, file a formal complaint, and/or request a due process hearing. Each of these options has a specific purpose for helping parents with their concerns, so it is important for parent to choose the best option for them (Wright 2006). Mediation with in the special education spectrum is when parents of a child with a disability and the staff sometimes disagree about the child’s special education or section 504 This process assist those individuals in reaching an agreement. It can be a quick and positive method for resolving disputes. Mediation can help by giving both parties equal opportunities to solve their problems by developing an agreement which reflects the best educational interest of the child (Wright 2006).
The characteristics of special education mediation are: 1) Voluntary. 2) Confidential. It is open communication in a confidential setting. There is no disclosure of information given by either party unless permission is obtained from the party. 3) At no cost to the parent, the state shall bear the cost of the mediation process, and 4) An alternative may occur prior to or concurrent with a request for a complaint investigation or a due process hearing. It does not interfere with the right to due process or due process time lines. Mediation in most cases will help resolve differences between parents and school personnel (Wright 2006).
Albeit, mediation is under the umbrella of special education, but it is also available under the Disability Law Section 504 and for other equity/discrimination laws such as gender and race/national origin. However, the laws do not provide the same level of support to the process as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
In June 1997, IDEA was reauthorized and signed into law. Under the reauthorization, all school districts are required to make special education mediation available to parents of children with disabilities. In Washington State, the use of mediation is strongly encouraged as a means to resolve disagreements between parents and school districts.
School districts are responsible for the cost incurred in mediation of Section 504 or equity disputes. Mediators have familiarity with these disability and equity laws. There are available to provide mediation services in these cases.
If a mediation session results in an agreement which would require changes to a student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP), and IEP team should be assembled as soon as possible to consider incorporation of elements of the agreement into the student’s IEP. The agreement may specify other agreed upon actions that are able to be taken. Not all mediation sessions result in agreements. If agreement is not reached, the mediator will certify to all the parties in writing that mediation has been unsuccessful. Even if an agreement is not reached, there is the potential of both parties leaving the session with an enhanced perspective of the issues and with the focus on the student. Most mediation results in better communication between the school and the parents. This often leads to an improved situation for the student (Wright 2006).
Mediators who have been involved with special education mediation have expressed that mediation is successful because it is a nurturing process. The process nurtures rather than destroys the trust and cooperation between people with an interest in the education of children with special needs. The existence of an ongoing relationship between both parties in a dispute contributes to the success of mediation. As a result, amicable settlements are more likely to occur.
Mills and Duff-Mallams (2000) examine and explain the empowerment and agreement process that contribute to the success of mediation are the well trained advocates, consistency with which statutory and regulatory requirements that have been enforced by school personnel, equality of bargaining power between the parties, a sense of empowerment, suitability of the issue to resolution through mediation, and the knowledge that the alternative to settlement is a full blown due process hearing.
For several years I have advocated for children in my community who have special needs. Parents and educators have utilized my knowledge of legal statues that are applied under 504 Disability Act. When parents arrive at the decision for mediation, their experience is not always a positive one. Parents feel they are up against the power of the institution because they are several members of the school personnel along with the mediator. The mediator is paid by the school district which leads me to believe that parents feel that the mediation process is not an equal process. Parents have shared with me that they feel empowered when they are able to utilize nonprofit organizations who advocate for parents with special needs such as the ARC of Whatcom County or other volunteer agencies. My experience with the school district is when a parent arrives with advocates, the school district appears to be more willing to find accomodations for a student.