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Resolving disagreements with a mediation meeting.

Federal special education law--from 1975's Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142) through today's Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004)--has always recognized that the complex process of planning and implementing special education programs for students with disabilities might lead to disagreements between schools and families. The law contains several provisions designed to help schools and families resolve disagreements. However, recent versions of the law (IDEA 1997 and IDEA 2004) have sought to make conflict resolution procedures both less formal and more expeditious.

In 1997, the U.S. Congress added a requirement for all states to make mediation available to parents after they filed a due process complaint. The latest version of the law (IDEA 2004) requires that states make mediation available to parents prior to filing a due process complaint. This continues Congress' effort to provide ways that schools and parents can resolve disputes at less formal levels than the due process hearing.

Parents who find themselves in conflict with their child's school regarding special education services should become aware of the specifics of special education mediation. When successful, mediation can help avoid a due process hearing or other more adversarial procedures.

Q: What is Mediation?

A: Mediation is a form of assisted dispute resolution in which participants come together to resolve their differences with the assistance of a neutral third party, in this case, a mediator. Mediation is a confidential process that allows parties to resolve disputes without a formal due process hearing. IDEA 2004 requires that mediation is available whether or not a due process hearing is requested. Either the parents of the public agency (generally, the school district) can initiate the mediation process. However, mediation must be voluntary for both parties.

Q: Who is a Mediator?

A: A mediator is a trained, impartial facilitator who helps school staff and parents resolve their disagreement in an informal setting. IDEA requires that mediation of special education disputes must be conducted by a qualified and impartial mediator and that each state maintains a list of qualified mediators, assign a mediator to a case on a random basis, and bear the cost of the mediation process.

The mediator facilitates discussion, encourages participants to identify and clarify areas of agreement and disagreement, and helps them generate and evaluate options for a mutually agreeable solution. Mediators are trained not to offer opinions or solutions to the issues in dispute but rather to focus on assisting parties to hear one another's concerns, identify common interests, and seek out creative, mutually agreeable resolutions.

The goal in mediation, with the assistance of the mediator, is for the school staff and parents to integrate these options into a workable solution that is written into a legally binding agreement.

Q: Is there a time limit for requesting mediation?

A: No, IDEA imposes no timeframe within which a request for mediation must be requested. Other dispute resolution procedures are subject to a time limit, so be sure to understand those limits if considering all options.

Q: How long does the mediation take?

A: The mediation process is frequently accomplished in a single session. However, follow-up sessions can be negotiated during the mediation if they are necessary.

Q: Are mediation discussions confidential?

A: Yes, mediation discussions are kept confidential and may not be used as evidence in any subsequent due process hearing or civil proceeding.

Q: Is there a time line for resolving the disagreement?

A: No, IDEA imposes no timeframe within which the disagreement must be resolved. Since the mediator does not resolve the disagreement but rather facilitates the discussion among the parties involved, a resolution is not guaranteed.

Q: What happens when a resolution is reached?

A: When a resolution is reached, the parties execute a legally binding agreement that is enforceable in a district court. The agreement is binding as soon as it is executed.

The mediation agreement must include the following: a description of the agreement, a statement that all discussions that occurred during the mediation process are kept confidential and may not be used as evidence in any due process hearing or civil proceeding that occurs later, Signatures of both the parent and a representative of the school district who has legally binding authority, and a statement that the agreement is enforceable in state or federal district court.

Q: What happens if a resolution is not reached?

A: If a resolution is not reached during the mediation, both parties retain their right to request a due process hearing at any point during or following the mediation process. However, it is important to remember that there are limitations on the timeframe within which a request for due process can be filed.

Learn more about mediation

Your state department of education should have information on mediation, including how to make a request for mediation. Contact your Parent Training and Information Center (see for directory) or state education department for more information. For additional information on how satisfied parents are with the mediation process and for a list of other resources on the mediation process, visit the EP Web site's Education Channel to access this article with addendums.

Candace Cortiella, The Advocacy Institute

Candace Cortiella is Director of The Advocacy Institute (, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the development of products, projects and services that work to improve the lives of people with disabilities. The mother of a young adult with learning disabilities and a disability rights advocate for over 17 years, she lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
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Title Annotation:Insight on Federal Policy: This month's focus: Special Education Law and Mediation Meetings
Author:Cortiella, Candace
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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