By Andrew M.I. Lee
In mediation, you and the school work together to solve a dispute with the help of someone who doesn’t take sides—a mediator. These tips can help you get ready for the meeting.
Being organized will help you get the most out of mediation. Start by checking for your child’s school records. You may want to ask the school to give you copies. (You can use our sample letter to ask for records.) Once you have the records, arrange them by date and by type of document. Here are some examples of documents to gather: Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), evaluations, letters, report cards and informal progress reports. Make a list of the documents with a summary of each.
Make sure a school administrator with decision-making power will be there, as well as another school employee who’s familiar with school services. You may want to ask particular teachers to attend. (For example, if your child is having trouble in art class, you can request that the art teacher attend.) You’re allowed to bring a lawyer, an education advocate and other experts, but you usually have to pay them. You can also just bring along a friend—maybe one who’s gone through the process before. If you bring a lawyer, the school must have a lawyer there, too, so you have to tell them ahead of time. In general, it’s always good to avoid surprises.
Ask the school to set a time and place for the mediation that works for you. The location—usually a conference room—should be big enough for everyone. Mediations can last an entire day, so check that the scheduled time is long enough. Set aside enough time to arrive a little early and have some time afterwards. For a preview of the process, read about what happens at a mediation session.
To have a successful mediation, you need to understand your child’s case. Begin by going through your child’s records. Identify your child’s issues and how they affect her in school. Look at what the school has done to help your child. Then look at what the experts have suggested for your child. Compare your child’s progress to goals set for her. Think about what you want the school to do and why you believe it would help your child. Using this information, write an outline of your child’s case.
Evidence is an important part of your case. Start by marking helpful documents that you want to show at the meeting. For example, if her IEP report says the school’s program is not working, you’ll want to highlight that. Other evidence may include report cards, test scores and evaluations. Also look out for evidence that may not be as obvious, such as discipline reports and letters or emails from teachers. Use the documents to help you prepare to respond to the school’s arguments.
Being effective in mediation means you need to learn how the law applies to your child. You may not be a lawyer, but you can learn what a free and appropriate public education means. Review your legal rights, such as prior written notice and the powerful “stay put” right, which keeps services in place during a dispute. When a school sees that you understand the law, they’re more likely to reach an agreement with you.
Most mediations give you time to give a statement. This is when you briefly tell your side and say what you want. Write this in advance. Include facts that support your case, as well as any times you believe the school didn’t follow the law. You can discuss your concerns and your child’s emotions. But don’t attack administrators—focus on your child’s needs. When you decide what to ask for, make sure you understand your rights under the law.
Mediation involves formal back-and-forth conversation with the school. So it may help to work on your negotiation skills. Start by reading about strategies for informal negotiation. It’s also important to practice. Read your opening statement out loud several times. Have a friend or an expert you trust play-act as the school officials. The more you practice, the more comfortable you’ll feel.
Because mediation is something you volunteer to do, you may have to compromise to reach an agreement with the school. Before the mediation, think about what you can accept. Don’t tell the school this, but you might want to tell the mediator privately. In addition, keep an open mind in case the school or mediator comes up with a solution you didn’t think of.
Special education can seem like a foreign language. You may hear unfamiliar terms and acronyms in meetings and wish for a translator! Learn these key terms and you may find it easier to protect your child’s rights.
You might consider hiring a lawyer if the school refuses to provide services for your child. But how do you select a good lawyer? And what are your options for covering the cost? Here are some ideas.
Andrew M.I. Lee is an editor and former attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education and parenting issues.
Donna Volpitta, Ed.D., is coauthor of The Resilience Formula: A Guide to Proactive, Not Reactive, Parenting.
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