Special Education Mediation: A Formula for Success
Mills, Guy E., Duff-Mallams, Karla, Teaching Exceptional Children
Does this sound possible-for due process issues to be settled so amicably? It can-and does-happen. During the past 2 years, the state of Missouri has used mediation in special education disputes between parents and school districts in Missouri to attempt to defuse due process hearings. Mediation allows for less formal discussions, facilitating resolution early in the complaint process. Under the 1997 Reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), every state is expected to offer mediation as an intervention strategy whereby parents and districts might resolve their disagreements related to children with disabilities.
This article discusses recent experiences with successful special education mediations. Specifically, we examine several cases, focusing on common elements that may have contributed to successful resolution.
History of Mediation
Special education disputes involved mediation as early as the 1970s (Schrag, 1996a). For example, in 1975, both California and Massachusetts offered mediation as an alternative dispute-resolution opportunity. It was a voluntary option for parents and educational agencies for handling special education issues (Symington, 1994). Several other states soon followed the initial models. In fact, 39 states offered mediation as an option by April 1994 (Ahearn, 1994). Now, as a result of the reauthorization of IDEA regulations, school districts in every state are required to offer mediation to parents of children with disabilities in every state when due process disputes arise. Either the school district or the parent may request mediation; however, the district must make it available (see box, "IDEA Mediation Guidelines").
What Is Mediation?
Mediation, as used in special education, is a process in which a mediator, serving as a neutral third party, assists disputants in reaching a mutually satisfactory agreement regarding educational placement, program, identification, evaluation, or other services to be provided for a child with disabilities (Schumack & Stewart, 1995). Mediation is informal but has structure, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The process stresses communication and creative problem-solving (Schrag, 199Gb). The mediator does not make decisions for the disputants; the mediator facilitates a negotiation process between parties who have reached an impasse (Dobbs, Primm, & Primm, 1991; see box, "Typical Characteristics of Mediations"). Because the process is voluntary, all participants must agree to negotiate a resolution.
Conflicts Often Leading to Mediation or Due Process
Most conflicts leading to mediation or due process result from discontentment with a child's individualized education program (IEP; Singer & Nace, 1985). Additional issues may result from identification, evaluation, and placement of a student with a disability (Schrag, 1996b; Fielding, 1990). Such issues may include:
* Whether a student should be identified as having a disability.
* The specific disability classification.
* Eligibility of a student to receive special education and related services.
* Appropriateness of the programs and services the student is designated to receive.
* Appropriateness of the designated type and amount of related services (e.g., speech-language therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy).
* Whether the educational placement designated for the student is in the least restrictive setting (Schrag, 1996b).
Certain cases are more appropriate for mediation than others. Mediation is helpful in the following situations:
* Broken lines of communication are the main problem.
* Insufficient information has been provided to one or both parties.
* Noncompliance with statutes, regulations, or procedures are present.
* A dispute arises regarding the basic level of trust and good faith between parties.
* Private school placement is not an issue. …