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Conflict resolution in special education: solving disagreements with the school

If you’re in the IEP process, you and the school may disagree on your child’s needs. Learn about conflict resolution in special education.

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If your child has an IEP, or if you are going through the evaluation process, you and the school may not always agree on what your child needs. Conflict resolution in Special Education can feel scary, but there are formal ways to work through a disagreement and make sure your rights are upheld.

You have the right to disagree with many aspects of the evaluation process, and the development and implementation of the IEP.

For example, you might disagree if…

What is conflict resolution in special education? 

Conflict resolution, also known as Dispute Resolution, is a formal process you can go through if you disagree with the school. 

These are the Dispute Resolution steps:

  1. Meet with the school again to discuss the disagreement
  2. Ask for a Facilitated IEP
  3. Ask for Mediation
  4. File a Complaint
  5. File for a Due Process Hearing

1. Meet with the school again

Start with the IEP team if you have one already. If not, contact the school principal, director of Special Education, or superintendent. Ask for a meeting to talk about your child’s needs and why you disagree with the decisions. 

Before the meeting, list the reasons why you feel your child should get more support than the school agreed to. Gather documents that support your reasons. 

These documents might include evaluation results, letters from specialists, or medical reports. At the meeting, use this evidence to make the case for why your child needs more than what the school proposed.

Try to be open-minded and understand the school team’s opinions. But of course, push back if you need to!

Hopefully this meeting will lead to an agreement on the changes. If that doesn’t happen, and your disagreement is about an IEP, you can try facilitated IEPs. You may also consider getting an education advocate

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Louisiana:

In Louisiana, the next step is an informal complaint. You will send a written complaint to your district, and you should also include the Louisiana Department of Education: SpecialEducation@la.gov

Learn more about Louisiana’s Dispute Resolution process

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2. Ask for a Facilitated IEP

If your disagreement is about the IEP, you might want to ask for a Facilitated IEP. Your state’s Department of Education should have facilitators available at no cost to help with difficult IEP meetings. 

Either the parents or the school can make the request for a facilitator. Both the parents and the school must agree before using a facilitator.

The facilitator…

  • Is a neutral person who does not represent you or the school, and is not a member of the IEP team
  • Helps with complex issues or a strained relationship between
    parents and the school
  • Oversees drafting a successful IEP for the student

What does the facilitator do?

  • Gets the school team to make a meeting agenda and stick to it
  • Keeps the team focused on the goal of agreeing on an IEP
  • Helps solve problems that come up
  • Keeps communication clear and open
  • Makes sure the meeting starts and ends on time

How do I ask for a facilitated IEP?

Check with your Special Education Department, or look in your Procedural Safeguards manual.

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Louisiana:

The Louisiana Department of Education manages the IEP facilitators. 

Fill out this Facilitation Request Form, and send it to:

Louisiana Department of Education

Attn: Legal Division

1201 North 3rd Street

Baton Rouge, LA 70802

You can also contact them by fax at 225-342-1197 or by email at DisputeResolution.DOE@la.gov.

Learn more about Louisiana’s Dispute Resolution process

Massachusetts:

The Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA) manages IEP facilitators.

You can read about the BSEA’s IEP facilitation process on their site, or call them at 781-397-4750.

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3. Ask for Mediation

Mediation means you get a trained, neutral person to talk through the issue with you and the school. Mediation is free. However, both you and the school must agree to participate.

Many parents find mediators to be very helpful and easy to talk to.

You can ask for mediation at any time in the process. If your dispute is about an expensive issue like 1-on-1 aides or major program changes, then it is usually a good idea to get mediation.

How to start the mediation process:

  1. Call the department in your state that deals with Special Education mediators. Usually this is part of the Department of Education. In some states you may be able to download a request form online and send it in by mail or email.
  2. You might also want to talk to a Special Education advocate or lawyer. They won’t need to come to the meeting, but they might be able to give you some advice. 

The office will schedule mediation sessions in a place that’s convenient to you and the school. You can ask for a change in time and place if you need it. 

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Louisiana:

Print out this Mediation Request Form and fill it out.

Call the Louisiana Department of Education Legal Division at 225-342-3572 or fax to 225-342-1197 or mail a written request to:

LDOE, Attn: Legal Division

P. O. Box 94064

Baton Rouge, LA

70804-9064

Learn more about Louisiana’s Dispute Resolution process

Massachusetts: 

Call the Board of Special Education Appeals (BSEA) at 781-397-4750 and ask for mediation. They will put you in touch with the mediator assigned to your region. 

You can read about Learn more about the BSEA’s Mediation process

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Tips to Prepare for Mediation:

  1. Make an outline of the dispute: What is the disagreement about? What is your view?
  2. Be prepared to explain to the mediator and the school district what you would like to discuss during the meeting.
  3. Decide what you want for your child: both short-term and long-term. What solutions can make these things happen?
  4. List the solutions you have thought of ahead of time to try and settle the dispute. List the most important solution first, then the next most important second, and so on. You may continue to brainstorm ideas at the meeting.
  5. Share your ideas with other people you trust, like friends and family members. Ask for their thoughts and suggestions.
  6. Consider getting help from a Special Education advocate.
  7. Keep the focus on your child’s needs.

    Remember – it’s okay if the plan you start with isn’t your first choice, as long as it’s a plan that might work. You can always build on it or adjust it later.

What to expect at the mediation meeting:

  • The meeting may last anywhere from 2 hours to a full day. Sometimes you need more than one session
  • The mediator will lead the meeting, give everyone the chance to share their concerns, and help problem-solve
  • Everything said at the meeting is confidential. Nothing from this meeting can be used later if you end up having a more formal hearing
  • If you reach an agreement, the mediator will verbally summarize it, then put it in writing
  • You and the school district will sign the written agreement and each get a copy. Keep this in your IEP binder in case you need to refer to it later
  • If you don’t reach an agreement, the mediator will discuss next steps

4. File a Complaint

If mediation doesn’t work, the next step is to file a complaint. 

Some states may have separate steps to file an informal or formal complaint. (See note above for Louisiana.)

Here is the process:

  1. Find your state’s complaint process and form. You can:
  2. Fill out the form.
  3. Make copies and keep one for yourself.
  4. Send a copy to your school district.
  5. You may need to send one to the state as well. Some states may have a separate office or system to handle complaints. 

Then stay on top of the process. Find out when the office is supposed to get back to you and call them if they take longer. Document every communication! You may have to use this information to prove it if they don’t follow the required process or timeline.

This is the last step before a Due Process Hearing, which is much more involved. 

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Louisiana:

Read about the process here.

Louisiana Formal Complaint Request Form.

Massachusetts:

This goes through the MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Problem Resolution System.

Here’s what you can do: 

  1. Go to the Problem Resolution System website. Or contact their office, which is listed there. Phone: 781-338-3700 / Email: compliance@doe.mass.edu 
  2. You can file a complaint online, or download and print a form
  3. Read the Complaint Procedures Guide, which will describe the whole process.

Forms and Information Guide are available in English and 9 other languages.

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5. File for a Due Process Hearing

This is a formal meeting, like a court trial. It should be a last resort! Read all about the Due Process Hearing.


Learn more

These resources all have more detailed information about your rights, Dispute Resolution and conflict resolution in Special Education.

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Louisiana:

Massachusetts:

BSEA stands for the Bureau for Special Education Appeals. This is a state office that conducts mediation, advisory opinions and hearings to resolve disputes about Special Education. 

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Check out our page: Special Education Hub

Where you will find links to more articles on this topic.

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