Special Education Dispute Resolution

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One of the most important aspects of a child’s ability to transcend his or her disability is access to a meaningful education. But often, what special education professionals believe is the best way to educate a child is completely different from a parent’s expectations. The process of dispute resolution is designed to help everyone involved reach a consensus.

What is dispute resolution?

Under federal law, every child in the United States that is coping with a disability is entitled to what is called a Free and Appropriate Education, or FAPE. The landmark law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990, or IDEA, was approved by the U.S. Congress to ensure that the goal of providing every child with a meaningful education, that is as close to a school’s conventional curriculum as possible, was met.

However, there’s often debate among educators – at the federal, state and local levels – about how to best achieve that goal. At the classroom level, the answer is that what’s a good fit for one child and his or her ability may not be the right solution for another child.

Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, are intended to address these differences, but sometimes, what educators believe would benefit a child, and what processes should be taken to meet individual goals, are not one in the same. That’s why there’s a specific procedure in place to resolve special education disputes, and address concerns voiced by educators and parents.

Like many aspects of overseeing the education of a child with special needs, the dispute resolution process can be a frustrating one. But the fact that it’s in place allows parents to address differences in opinion about their child’s capabilities, and their own expectations.

Stages of dispute resolution

Special education dispute resolution is a process by which educators and parents resolve disagreements about an aspect of a child’s education. Dispute resolution allows educators and parents to come to a consensus regarding what solutions should be brought to bear to help a child learn.

The process of dispute resolution is multi-faceted; it has several steps designed to help both parties come to an agreement. Also, some of the steps provide for a third party involvement.

The stages of dispute resolution include:

  • The Initial IEP meeting with a child’s instruction team
  • Mediation, which brings a third-party observer to make suggestions to the table
  • A IEP resolution meeting, which gives parents and educators a chance to address disputes
  • Facilitated IEP meeting, which involves an impartial professional
  • A due process hearing
  • A civil action

In most cases, educators and parents can reach an agreement at an initial IEP meeting. Whenever a breakthrough occurs, the process can conclude, and any needed remedies can be implemented.

Why is there a formal process in place to resolve special education disputes?

When parents go to school to discuss their child’s education, there’s more potential for disagreement than one could imagine. Educators that work with children that have special needs are in the vast majority of cases caring individuals that work hard to do right by the children. Still, parents and teachers may not always agree on what approaches work best to reach a child.

By having a process in place that is organized, and that allows educators and parents input, it creates a situation that for the most part brings about the best outcomes for a child. Although educators have experience working with children of varying abilities, parents better understand a child’s needs outside of the classroom.

When a parent explains his or her position – and educators share theirs – it creates a dialog that typically leads to a child receiving improved services. Whether dispute resolution takes place in a casual or formal setting, it encourages both sides to find an acceptable compromise.

What specific issues are a source of contention between educators and parents?

A dispute about a child’s education typically begins when a district’s IEP team, which devises educational plans for all children that receive special education services, takes steps to put something in a child’s IEP plan that a parent disagrees with.

Because parents are an integral part of the IEP process, there is the potential for disagreement on several fronts. When the IEP team and a parent can’t find a solution, it means that there’s no plan in place for a child to receive an education. And, a parent must sign off on all IEP plans before it can be implemented.

Some points of contention between educators and parents include:

  • Too much, or two little time spent in special education classrooms
  • Too much, or too little time spent in a mainstreamed classroom
  • The type, or amount of assistive technologies made available to a child
  • Disagreements about a child’s ability to understand instruction
  • The level of work expected of a child, and whether that work is grade-level
  • The recreational and social opportunities afforded a child
  • If a child will need an aide in the classroom
  • Differing opinions about how children with special needs can complete assignments
  • Whether a child will travel to a center program away from his or her home school
  • Concerns about how a child is progressing under his current IEP

What does the special education dispute process entail?

In a practical sense, the dispute resolution process begins when a child begins attending classes. When the scope of a child’s IEP plan is being ironed out by a team at school and his or her parents, some aspects of the plan might not be agreeable to parents.

When this occurs, it’s helpful to the parent to be pro-active by voicing his or her concerns to educators during annual meetings. But in a larger sense, the best preparation a parent has during the IEP process, and the process by which disputes are resolved. Parents should also understand that it is the responsibility of a school district to provide a child with disabilities an education that meets his or her needs; educators are legally obligated to take an individualistic approach to a child with special needs.

If a conflict exists, the first course of action might be to address any concerns at the IEP meeting. Although an annual IEP takes place before the start of the school year, a parent may ask for an IEP meeting at any time, and should not be afraid to ask for an IEP revision.

During an IEP meeting, parents or educators may address:

  • New accommodations for a child
  • The amount of time spent in special education classrooms
  • The types of support services a child receives
  • A child’s ability to work at grade-level
  • A child’s educational placement
  • A child’s overall progress in relation to the IEP plan

At the IEP level, solutions may be fixed throughout the school year, or they may be flexible. What’s important is that educators and parents can agree on a solution that’s a net benefit to a child. Any outstanding issues that might come up after a review meeting can always be addressed in a follow-up meeting.

In some cases, a parent may have the option of asking for a facilitated IEP meeting, which brings an impartial, third-party professional into the fold to provide input into the source of the dispute, and provide suggestions as to how the dispute can be resolved. It’s not available in all communities and is not a component of the IDEA law. A facilitator may not impose a decision regarding a conflict, but can bring clarity and order needed to come to a consensus.

The benefits of a facilitator include:

  • An ability to provide a different perspective and suggest new options
  • The ability to help both parties reach agreements through communication
  • The ability to address issues when a strained relationship exists between educators and parents

An IEP meeting may, or may not, include every member of a child’s IEP team, which is allowed under the IDEA law. Most likely, the members of the IEP team that can adequately address a parent’s concerns will be present during a review. But in the event that does not occur, a parent can file for a due process hearing.

Once a parent files for a hearing, a resolution hearing between special education officials and a parent must be scheduled within 15 days.

Under the best case scenario, any disputes that exist will be addressed at this level. In most cases, concerns are resolved between educators and parents at the resolution level, which is beneficial because the ability to work together effectively to educate a child yields the best results for a student. If a consensus is reached at this meeting, the due process hearing need not take place.

Some benefits of a resolution meeting include:

  • It’s less adversarial than a due process hearing
  • It offers an opportunity for parents and educators to air their concerns
  • It helps both parties build a relationship
  • It keeps the focus on a child’s education progress and development
  • An agreement may be enforceable in court

One dispute resolution that can bring agreement is mediation. A mediator is a third-party professional that does not take sides in a conflict and listens to the concerns of educators and parents. He or she considers evidence and information provided by both sides. The mediator does encourage a dialog between both sides, and if an agreement is reached, he or she helps them prepare a written agreement. Mediation is a confidential, voluntary step.

Whether it’s a resolution meeting or a mediation session, parents should be able to explain their position, and be able to answer questions about a child’s abilities as they relate to the dispute. Parents will also need to be able to speak to why they believe educators are taking a wrong approach.

When preparing for any meeting with educators, a parent should do the following:

  • Write down what a child does – or does not – need
  • Write down the actions educators should take, from a parent’s point of view
  • Make sure that all background information is well organized and accessible
  • Identify what laws, if any, might be violated under a child’s current plan
  • Call the state Parent Training and Information Center, or CADRE, for assistance
  • Try to hold emotions in check during a meeting
  • Listen to the other side’s point of view

At all levels of the dispute resolution process, it’s beneficial to a parent if he or she is prepared. But even in cases where a parent has made their case to best of his or her ability, sometimes no agreement is reached. When that occurs, the next step is to follow up on the due process complaint.

How can a parent proceed with a complaint, and what should the complaint include?

If resolution meetings have not brought clarity to a parent’s concerns about a child education within 30 days, then he or she may consider filing for a due process complaint. This allows a parent to have his or her grievances redressed by a hearings officer at his or her local education agency, or LEA, or state education department, or SEA.

A complaint is a letter filed with the education agency that outlines why a parent believes educators are in violation of Part B of the IDEA law. A copy of the letter should also be sent to the school district.

The following information must be included in the letter:

  • A child’s name
  • The name of a child’s school and school district
  • The family’s address
  • A descriptive statement about the child’s challenges as it relates to the conflict
  • A statement as to the specific violations of the IDEA law
  • A proposed resolution
  • A parent’s signature

If all of the information is not included in the initial complaint, it may be dismissed as insufficient. In that event, a parent may re-file with additional information as long as he or she is within the original time frame. If the complaint is deemed sufficient, both parties will receive a letter informing them that the process will move forward.

Of course, hearings processes may differ from state to state; it’s advisable that a parent visit his or her state education agency’s website, or call the agency, to learn more about the hearings process.

After a hearing, a decision by a hearings officer must be based on:

  • Examination of evidence
  • The provisions set forth by the IDEA law
  • An on-site investigation, if one is needed

Once this letter is received, a due process hearing will be scheduled within 45 days. By law, the state agency must resolve the complaint within 60 days from the day the complaint was initiated. Once a decision is made regarding the complaint, the hearings officer will write a report, which will then be provided to the school district and the parent. The report will contain a review of all of the evidence, and the reason the hearings officer came to the decision in the report.

Can a hearing officer’s decision be appealed?

What happens if a parent disagrees with a decision rendered by a hearings officer? If a parent disagrees with a hearing officer’s decision, he or she may bring a civil action against the school district. Conversely, a school may also bring a civil action if officials believe they have been aggrieved, or if they believe they are being asked to provide something that is not a part of their mandate.

A civil action may be brought in federal or state court, depending on whether the issues under consideration would be best addressed in a federal or state setting. The civil action must be filed within 90 days of a hearing officer’s decision.

During the court proceeding, an administrative law judge will review all of the documents received by both parties and will render a decision based on the evidence and the law.

Should a parent hire an advocate?

Sometimes, even the best of efforts expended by parents and educators don’t bring about a consensus about a child’s education. If a dispute has reached the point where a formal hearing or court appearance is scheduled, it might be time to hire an attorney.

Attorneys that specialize in special education can make sure that a child’s – as well as his or her parents – rights are protected. He or she may also make be able to provide parents with valuable insights in terms of how to present their side to the hearings officer.

There is one rule put into place by IDEA that a parent may not expect. If a hearing takes place, the LEA’s attorney may not be included in the proceedings unless an attorney is on-site to represent the parents. Parents should also understand the IDEA did not put into place confidentiality provisions.

Of course, like in any other legal proceedings, parents have the right to represent their own interests in front of a hearings officer or judge. If in the event, a parent does decide to seek legal representation, a good place to start is the website for the State Bar Association.

What can parents do to communicate more effectively with educators?

Behind a child’s health and happiness, a parent’s chief concern for his or her child is access to meaningful education. The quality of a child’s education – and whether it can serve as an entryway to further training, college, or the world of work – can make a huge difference in a child’s life.

Although getting to that point can be a long, knotty task, one way to minimize the likelihood of potential conflicts is to make known expectations; to let educators know what a child is capable of at home that can influence his or her experiences at school.

Another strategy is to ask questions. If an educator believes that a child is best served by a strategy a parent is not sure about, it’s a good idea to find out why. Sometimes, if a parent knows more about how an educator comes to make a decision, it’s not as adversarial as it would be otherwise.

As always, both sides need to listen to the other party’s ideas. No one knows better than a parent what a child is capable of – and educators should listen to a parent’s concerns. Educators bring expertise to table that a child can benefit from, and a parent should also be willing to learn more. Generally, most disputes can be resolved if communication is open, and both sides remember that a child’s ability to succeed in school depends on it.

Special Education

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Special Education

Every child is entitled to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. Some children require aids and supports. Parents are urged to research and meet with educators in the public and private sectors to decide the appropriate education path to meet their child’s needs.
Special Education