You and the school disagree about some part of your child’s education. Now, you’re thinking about asking for help to resolve it. What is mediation? And what happens during a mediation meeting? Read on.
Mediation is negotiation.
Mediation is a private meeting where you and the school try to reach an agreement with the help of a trained professional who is not on either side. This person is called a mediator. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) says that schools have to provide mediation for free. You’re allowed to bring a lawyer or other experts to the mediation, but you have to pay them yourself. Note that if you bring a lawyer, the school will probably bring one too.
The mediator’s job is to be neutral, to build trust, and to help both sides find a way to agree on your child’s education plan. The mediation meeting usually takes place in a conference room and can last from several hours to an entire day. Most follow this format:
- Mediator’s Opening: The mediator introduces everyone and explains the rules. The mediator may also describe the goal of the meeting and what the mediator will be doing. (Time: 10–15 minutes)
- Your Opening Statement: You tell your side of the story, explaining your child’s situation and in what way the school is not providing what your child needs. (Time: 5–15 minutes)
- School’s Opening Statement: The school explains its side, arguing why it believes it’s providing the right services for your child. The school may or may not respond to what you’ve said, and the mediator may give you a second chance to speak. (Time: 5–15 minutes)
- Private Discussions: After the opening statements, the mediator talks with each side, one at a time. The mediator may go back and forth several times. During these discussions, the mediator will probably tell you how strong or weak your case is. The mediator will also try to help you and the school understand the case and any areas where you agree. What you say to the mediator is private. The mediator can’t tell the school what you’re saying, unless you give permission. (Time: Several hours)
- Joint Negotiation: After the private conversations, the mediator brings you and the school back together to talk. This is when an agreement may be reached. (Time: An hour or more)
- Closing the Mediation: If you and the school reach an agreement, the mediator writes out the main points in a possible final agreement. You might sign this at the mediation or take it for a few days to look it over. If you and the school can’t agree during this meeting, the mediator reviews your progress and suggests next steps. They could include another mediation session or “due process.” (Time: 30–60 minutes)
This is a basic outline of mediation, but it could be different in your school. The purpose is the same—to help find a plan everyone is happy with.
What’s good about mediation?
Mediation can be a quick, free way to resolve a disagreement and get what your child needs. In most cases, mediation takes a few hours and no lawyers attend. The mediator can help both sides state their positions clearly, and you might gain a better understanding of the strength of your arguments and the school’s arguments.
Because it’s a formal process under the IDEA law, the agreement is legally binding. The school and parents usually take it seriously and work hard to find agreement.
Mediation is one of the most common ways parents and schools find a way to deal with special education disputes. In the 2011–12 school year, there were 6,055 mediations and 5,394 agreements. That’s about an 89 percent chance of agreement.
What’s not as good about mediation?
The mediator doesn’t hear the testimony of witnesses and then make a ruling on the disagreement. It’s possible that in mediation, you may give in more than you’d need to if a hearing officer were deciding the case. Mediation can also delay your dispute and give the school information you don’t want them to have about your case and arguments.
Knowing what to expect will help you decide whether it’s right for you. To learn more, you may want to read tips on how to prepare for mediation. You may also want to look at suggestions for what to say during a mediation session.