Special Education Mediation

Resolving your Special Education Dispute with Private Mediation

Conflicts between parents of children with special needs and their public school district can be contentious, emotional, and expensive. The stakes are always high in disputes involving children, especially when the child has complex needs that may be difficult to identify or expensive to meet. School districts and parents often disagree about whether a child is eligible for special education services, what those services should be, where the child should attend school, and who is responsible for paying for the child’s evaluations, services, and placement.

While most parties resolve their disputes without going to court or an administrative Due Process hearing, those that wind up in adversarial litigation often face staggering legal fees and judgments that sometimes exceed the cost of providing the services to the child. Litigation is also time-consuming and inherently risky for both parties, which can be very problematic for those trying to meet the needs of a vulnerable child.

Whether you are hoping to avoid litigation or trying to settle a dispute that is already in court or a hearing, private Mediation could be a powerful option to help you resolve your conflict efficiently, effectively, and peacefully.

If you’re interested in learning what Mediation is, why and how it works, and how it compares to litigation, check out these resources: [links to Mediation Blog, Mediation FAQ, Mediation vs. Litigation].

While private Mediation can be helpful for resolving most special education disputes, it may be especially effective when: 

Delay in resolution poses serious risk of irreparable harm to the child.

At the heart of every special education dispute is a child. Parents and school districts share an interest in meeting the needs of that child and ensuring that the child does not pay the price for their dispute. The timeframe for litigation is typically measured in months or years, while mediation is usually completed in a matter of days or weeks. When the child is counting on the parents and the district to resolve their dispute as quickly as possible, Mediation may be the fastest, most efficient, and most effective way forward.

The parties expect to be working together for years to come.

Children with special needs often remain eligible for special education services from their school districts even after they are no longer children. In Pennsylvania, students may be eligible until the end of the school year in which they turn 21. Thus, many parents and districts that are in conflict must continue working together long after a judge or hearing officer decides their case. Adversarial litigation rarely strengthens the relationships between the parties and often damages them permanently. By contrast, Mediation offers the parties a way to build trust and basic communication skills that will help them avoid and resolve conflicts effectively in the future. Mediation builds bridges that the parties cannot afford to burn.

The dispute involves very complex facts.

Special education matters can involve extremely complex facts concerning a child’s needs, progress, educational testing, and programming, often over many years and involving dozens of teachers, specialists, meetings, evaluations, and voluminous records. Courts are ill-equipped to understand these facts and to appreciate the contexts in which they occur. While special education Hearing Officers are better equipped than most judges to make sense of the specialized issues in these matters, Hearing Officers often have limited authority to impose remedies or solutions to the problems the parties face in these cases. Private Mediation with an experienced special education Mediator offers the parties the opportunity to craft creative, flexible agreements that are tailored to the unique facts of their case, with the help of a skilled, neutral Mediator who has expertise in both special education conflict resolution.

The case involves novel or unsettled legal issues

Whenever someone else is deciding the outcome of your conflict – including a judge or hearing officer – the outcome is inherently uncertain. Risks abound even when your matter is like others that came before and when the legal issues are common and well-settled. So, when your dispute involves novel or unsettled legal issues, litigation can feel more like high stakes gambling than a reliable dispute resolution process. In these cases, the benefits of Mediation are even more pronounced. Parties to a Mediation retain complete control over the outcome of their matter and neither party risks incurring the costs of an adverse decision that could establish even costlier precedent for future cases. The riskier and less certain the outcome of your litigation, the more prudent it is to attempt Mediation.

The matter involves a dispute over legal fees.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) contains a “fee-shifting” provision under which parents may petition a federal court for an Order requiring their school district to pay their reasonable attorney’s fees when the parents prevail against the district in an administrative due process hearing. Less commonly, a district may seek reimbursement of its legal fees against the parents. In many cases, legal fees approach or even exceed the cost of the disputed services or placement for the child. Sometimes, the only issue that the parties are “stuck” on is the payment of attorney’s fees. Fee disputes can take months, or even years, to resolve in court, and are fraught with risk for both sides. With the help of an experienced special education Mediator, the parties can often resolve these disputes faster and avoid incurring additional “fees on fees” – the legal fees associated with litigating the fee dispute itself.

We can help.

Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you resolve your special education dispute efficiently, effectively, and peacefully.

For more about mediation, click here.