Not an IEP or a 504 plan — it’s our mediation agreement

Like many parents, when I think about school services for my kids, I usually think about an IEP or a 504 plan. But now my daughter has something different — something I hadn’t run across before. It’s called a mediation agreement.

Let me give you some background about how we arrived at this.

Not qualifying for special education services

Our youngest daughter was evaluated both by her school and by an outside professional — a neuropsychologist. The professional diagnosed her as having and a . The school accepted her diagnosis, but then told us she wasn’t eligible for special education services.

Having dyslexia or a doesn’t guarantee that a student will get special education services. I feel like I have to say that again, because it took me years as a parent to understand this: Having a diagnosed “disability” doesn’t guarantee that your child will qualify for special education services.

In our school district, a student must also meet certain criteria to qualify. And that’s where our family and the school disagree.

Our daughter struggles with text and reading fluency but excels at . So she scored higher than average on the school’s evaluation test. Because of her decoding and fluency issues, we believe our daughter is eligible for services. But because of her better-than-average test score, the school says she isn’t. We’ve had multiple discussions with the school, but we still disagree.

And that brings me to the Office of Dispute Resolution. (It sounds intimidating, I know.) The office handles special education disputes in our school district and state. As a mom of three kids, two with learning and thinking differences who attend public school, I’ve worked with the office many times over the last 10 years.

Complaint, due process, and mediation — this is the jargon the office uses for how families and schools can resolve disputes. In our state, dispute resolution and each of these terms is summed up in a 90-page guidebook for families. It’s 93 pages to be exact, and yes, it is overwhelming.

Moving forward with mediation

The school asked us to consider mediation. This is a meeting between the school and the family, where a trained professional called a mediator helps each side to resolve a disagreement. The mediator is neutral and not on anyone’s side. We’d heard that mediation could be a fast way to resolve our issue, so we agreed to try.

We got into a room with the mediator and staff from the school. Neither side had attorneys. The mediator was an attorney who was trained in negotiation, but not in special education law (though some are, I’ve heard).

For the first 30 minutes, my husband and I and the school went back and forth about our disagreement over eligibility. Then the mediator stopped us and said, “Let’s talk about solutions.”

For the next three hours, we worked on a solution. By the end, we’d reached a temporary mediation agreement with the school. The agreement addressed the impact of our daughter’s dyslexia and included multisensory instruction in reading to help with her decoding and fluency challenges.

We signed the agreement, and within a week, the plan for my daughter was put into action. In the months that followed, we felt that her needs were being met in school.

Thinking ahead: What comes after the temporary mediation agreement?

What we didn’t resolve in the mediation was the question of whether she was eligible for special education services. In fact, we made sure the agreement noted that we hadn’t resolved that issue.

To us, it felt like a partial win. Our daughter has a plan of action that’s legally binding. She’s getting what she needs, at least right now. We didn’t take the typical path through  — the federal law that protects the right to special education in the public schools.

While I wish I had a nice, neat bow to tie up this story, I just don’t. Right now, this is where our family finds itself in the journey.

The mediation agreement is temporary — it ends soon. We’re collecting data from this past school year on how our daughter is doing on reading assessments and state testing. Soon, we’ll ask for another eligibility meeting with the school, based on the fact that we have more data to bring to the table. We’ll reconsider the criteria for eligibility and go from there.

And if we still disagree with the school? Well, I have the Office of Dispute Resolution and a 93-page guidebook of options to consider.

Learn more about dispute resolution options for special education. Read up on how to prepare for a mediation session. And to get more help with your state’s special education rules, visit your local Parent Training and Information Center.


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