When a parent and their child’s school district are unable to resolve differences, mediation is one of the voluntary dispute resolution options that are available to parents. In mediation, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) assigns a neutral third party to help parents and the district resolve disputes over issues with an Individualized Education Program (IEP), including identification, evaluation, educational placement, or the provision of a free appropriate public education (FAPE).
Parents Need to Know
- Why request: If you and the school district are struggling to resolve a disagreement and you need the assistance of a neutral party to clearly communicate concerns, find common ground, and explore possible solutions.
- How to request: Download and complete a Request for Mediation form and send it directly to [email protected].
- Who participates: This is a voluntary process. If you and the school district both agree to a mediation, participants include parents, a school district representative with decision-making authority, educators who have direct experience with your student and knowledge of your student’s programs and services, and an impartial mediator assigned by the Minnesota Department of Education. The mediator supports a constructive, forward looking conversation about the issues and leads a problem solving session to find an acceptable resolution for all. If you have consulted with a PACER advocate prior to the meeting, you may request they attend.
- Timeline: The meeting must be held in a timely manner (typically within three weeks from the date the Minnesota Department of Education receives a completed request form from both the school district and the parents).
- Decision makers: Parents and school district staff.
- Outcome: If agreement is reached, a legally binding Mediated Agreement is signed by the school district’s authorized representative and the parent. The terms of a Mediated Agreement include how the issues will be resolved, who is responsible to implement the terms, and a timeline for implementation.
How it Works
The necessary members of the IEP team, including at least one parent and a district staff person with authority to resolve the dispute (often the special education director), attend the mediation conference. But parents don’t have to go it alone, said Pat Anderson, PACER Senior Advocate and Trainer, who works with mediation. “It’s important for parents to know that they can receive help from a PACER staff advocate every step of the way. An advocate can assist parents with deciding to mediate, help them prepare for the mediation, tell them about the process, and even attend the mediation if requested by the parents.”
The mediator takes on the role of facilitator, helping keep the focus on the child’s needs and assist the team in creating a solution that both sides can agree on. Mediation almost always results in an agreement, Pat said. “In 2017, the Minnesota Department of Education reported that 93 percent of cases mediated reached an agreement.”
Another benefit to mediation is that it is a constructive, rather than an adversarial, process. “The mediator helps the participants work as a team. They agree on an outcome, rather than having one side ‘win,’” Pat explained. “The process helps build cooperation and trust and a feeling of working together on the child’s behalf."
Creative Approach to Mediation Helps One Family Resolve a Special Education Dispute
When disputes arise between a parent and a school district, mediation is not unusual. It is rare, however, for a young child to be directly involved in the process, as was the case with Susan, a mom from Minnesota whose 13-year-old son Bradley was at the table when an agreement was reached about his Individualized Education Program (IEP). “I really wanted Bradley to see how many people cared about him and how hard we were all working to resolve things,” said Susan.
After usual efforts to reach an agreement among members of the IEP team have been exhausted, mediation is one of the voluntary dispute resolution options available to families. In mediation, a neutral third party provided by the state helps parents and their child’s school district resolve disputes over identification, evaluation, educational placement, or the provision of a free appropriate public education (FAPE). At least one parent and a district staff person with authority to resolve the dispute (usually the special education director) must attend the conference.
Working Together for Success
Bradley is one of seven siblings. He is creative and outgoing but has a processing disorder which causes him emotional stress and difficulty fitting in with his peers. Prior to mediation, Susan had worked with the school to develop Bradley’s IEP, but one key issue was unresolved — Susan wanted Bradley to attend a regular education language arts class so that he could be with his peers in a less restrictive environment. “We were really concerned about the social aspect of Bradley’s education because he was struggling with that,” Susan said. “You need to try and understand where the teachers are coming from, but you can’t let go of what is important for your child.”
Susan worked closely with a PACER parent advocate to help resolve the issues and build trust with the school. She wanted the school to better understand Bradley’s learning challenges, and felt it would be best if her son was involved in the process. Having Bradley at the table helped the adults in the room grasp the scope of his needs and helped Bradley better understand what he needed to do to be successful. As a result, the IEP was changed to add more structure and additional supports for Bradley so that he could do well in the regular education language arts program. “I was happy that they listened to me,” Bradley said when the mediation was over. “I was really surprised to see everybody getting along, but I liked it.”
To help parents with the mediation process, PACER offers the resource, “Checklist: Preparing for and Attending Mediation”. Once the parties reach a resolution, the mediator puts the agreement in writing. The final document is confidential and legally binding. “I really appreciated that the charter school was creative enough to allow some flexibility and move toward positive reinforcement,” Susan said.
“In our case it was very helpful having Bradley participate in the mediation, and it helped him to better understand what he needed to do. Other families may want to consider this option, too.”
The family’s names have been changed in this story to protect their privacy.
Checklist: Preparing for and Attending Mediation
You and your child’s school have chosen to have a mediation and hopefully resolve one or more disagreements. Careful preparation can help you participate more effectively in the mediation process. The following checklist will help you prepare for mediation.
Your role prior to mediation:
- Make a list of your concerns and prioritize them. Item #1 should be your most important concern.
- Organize documents that support your concerns. Records might include:
- School evaluations
- Your child’s current Individualized Education Program (IEP)
- Any private assessments (educational and medical) you have
- IEP progress reports, discipline reports, and regular education report cards
- Notes from teachers or other informal documents
- Make a list of possible resolution options for each of your concerns. What would be the best possible outcome for your child? What might be an acceptable outcome?
- Anticipate questions school personnel may ask you. Make a list of those questions and consider how you might respond to each one.
- If needed, contact a PACER parent advocate to discuss your concerns and help you prepare for the mediation.
- Please note: If no agreement is reached in mediation, your child will continue to receive services as currently written in his or her IEP.
Your role during mediation:
- Come to the mediation with an open mind and the desire to find a workable solution. Be creative and willing to look at other options that are brought to the table.
- Express your viewpoint as clearly as you can by using supporting documentation.
- Listen respectfully to the school’s point of view and do not interrupt. Ask questions and consider their views even if these are different from yours.
- Expect school personnel to listen to your point of view and not interrupt you.
- Your concern may be rooted in the past but keep the emphasis now on planning for the future.
- It is okay to say “I need a break” or ask to meet separately with those supporting you or the mediator.
- If an agreement is reached, read it carefully before signing the document to make sure it clearly describes your understanding of what was agreed to at the meeting.