Mediation, meee–deee-aayyy-shun! I’m singing that in the Cat in the Hat tune. Have you seen that episode where he sings about hibernation? Well, that’s what I think of when people talk about IEP mediation.

I end up singing that term in my head. But enough about my ear worms. You’re here because you need to know more about IEP and Special Education Mediation.

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IEP Mediation

I’m going to go over what mediation is, how it is used in the IEP and Special Education process.

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Please note that this post will contain my experiences which are all in PA, your mileage may vary.

What is IEP Mediation?

Mediation is an option in the dispute resolution process. If things are not going well and you and your district cannot come to an agreement on all or part of the IEP, you have several options. Yes, you can file for Due Process.

But, prior to going to Due Process, you have other options. And one of those options is mediation.

IEP mediation refers to a process used to resolve disputes between parents and schools regarding your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). An IEP is a legally binding document that outlines the special education and related services your disabled child will receive in school.

When disagreements arise about the content of the IEP or its implementation, mediation can be used as an alternative dispute resolution method. During mediation, a neutral third party, often a trained mediator, facilitates discussions between the parents and the school to help them reach a mutually acceptable agreement.

The goal is to find a resolution that meets the child’s needs and ensures they receive appropriate educational services. Mediation is often less adversarial and more collaborative than other dispute resolution methods, such as due process hearings or litigation.

Mediation: Different States, Different Rules.

Read your Procedural Safeguards and read your state’s website that contains your Mediation information. Pennsylvania’s is called the Office for Dispute Resolution or ODR. Some specific details will vary from state to state.

For example, PA does not allow attorneys at Mediation, but other states do. (update: PA now allows attorneys at mediation) You can read all of Pennsylvania’s Special Education dispute options HERE.

My Experience with Special Ed Mediation

I have been to mediation several times with clients. Since advocates are allowed but attorneys are not, it is very common to have an advocate’s support in mediation. {Note: Some states allow attorneys at mediation. PA does not.}

Generally what happens is that you’ve had a series of IEP meetings and lots of email going back and forth. Finally the district basically just says “no” and presents their final offer of FAPE.

When I have gone to mediation, it always was preceded by an IEP meeting, during which the LEA said, “Well, when we send the final IEP and NOREP (PWN), this is what it will say….” and usually the item(s) we wanted are not on that list.

Decision Time for Parents

So the parent gets the paperwork and has a decision to make. You can accept it or not. And you have several options of what you are going to do. One of those is to “file for mediation.”

You check this box on your NOREP/PWN and then head on over to the ODR website and do the mediation paperwork.

This is assuming, of course, that you have already read about mediation, discussed it with your advocate or spouse, and considered it carefully.

What to Expect once you File for Mediation.

Once ODR (Office of Dispute Resolution) gets the paperwork, they assign you a mediator. They ask you for a list of dates that you could do this, and they assign a date, time and place.

Mediation can take all day and they tell you leave all day open.

Yeah, that’s not fair, I get it. You have to take a day off of work as a parent, and for the rest of the team, it’s a work day.

Not fair, but something over which we have no control. It is what it is.

Like anything else, there are good mediators and there are not-so-great ones. I have had really fair, impartial, active mediators that got us on the same page quickly. And I have had some who basically introduced themselves and then said, “Well, I’m just here to make sure that the conversation stays focused on {name of student}” and then went and sat in the corner. I really should have reported him, as he acted more like a facilitator, not a mediator.

We got no where and wasted half a day. But I digress. Ask around, ask other families, in support groups, ask advocates what they know about this mediator.

The mediator’s role is NOT to make sure that things are done fairly. Their role is to have everyone come to an agreement. That day, a good mediator is typing up an agreement as you are working at the meeting, and at the end of it all, you sign a written agreement. The WHOLE team who was there signs it, and it is binding.

Again, this is why I brow beat all of you all the time about doing everything in writing. You want to have all of your documentation with you. This isn’t about showing who said what.

It’s about proving what your child needs, and making the case for it. So you want to have all your data with you.

The school can say no.

Here’s something not a lot of parents realize:

So, you can get mentally prepared for it, check the box, fill out the ODR paperwork, and they can refuse. That then forces your hand to either accept the IEP or file for Due Process. Again, more brow beating!

This is why the documentation is so important and why you have to continually prepare yourself as if you were going to file for IEP Due Process. Before you go to mediation, I would at least consult with an attorney and let them know your plans. That way if the school refuses mediation you are set up to file for DP if necessary.

Or, you are prepared to receive a NOREP/PWN that says that the school has already filed for DP which can happen too. But, should you end up in Due Process, schools look very uncooperative if they refuse mediation.

Personally, if you are great at your documentation and you know that you have the data, mediation is not scary. Sure, it can be nerve-wracking and stressful, but with proper preparation, you will do fine.

During IEP Mediation

When you attend an IEP mediation, you’re essentially participating in a structured negotiation process to resolve disputes related to a child’s education plan.

Here’s what typically happens during an IEP mediation:

  1. Preparation: Before the mediation session, both parties—usually the parents or guardians and the school district—prepare their arguments and gather relevant documents. This may include the child’s IEP, assessments, progress reports, and any correspondence related to the dispute.
  2. Selection of Mediator: A neutral third party, known as the mediator, facilitates the mediation process. The mediator is trained in conflict resolution techniques and helps guide the discussion toward finding a mutually acceptable solution. Here in PA, our state office (where you file) assigns the mediator.
  3. Opening Statements: Each party has the opportunity to make an opening statement, outlining their concerns, desired outcomes, and proposed solutions.
  4. Discussion and Negotiation: The mediator facilitates a discussion between the parties, encouraging them to express their viewpoints and concerns. Both sides have the chance to present evidence, share perspectives, and propose potential solutions. The mediator may hold private caucuses with each party to discuss sensitive issues or explore potential compromises.
  5. Agreement: If the parties reach an agreement, the terms are documented in writing and signed by both parties. This agreement may include modifications to the child’s IEP, changes to services or accommodations, or other resolutions to the dispute.
  6. Follow-up: If an agreement is reached, the parties typically outline a plan for implementing the agreed-upon changes and monitoring the child’s progress. This may involve follow-up meetings or reports to ensure compliance with the terms of the agreement.
  7. No Agreement: If the parties are unable to reach a resolution through mediation, they may explore other options, such as further negotiation, filing a formal complaint, or pursuing legal action.

The goal of IEP mediation is to promote collaboration, communication, and problem-solving to ensure that the child’s educational needs are met in a manner that is fair and appropriate for all parties involved.

What If You Don’t Come to an Agreement in Mediation

If the parties involved in an special education mediation don’t come to an agreement, there are several potential outcomes, depending on the circumstances and the laws and regulations in place:

  1. Further Negotiation: In some cases, if progress has been made during the mediation session but an agreement hasn’t been reached, the parties may agree to continue negotiations outside of mediation. They may schedule additional meetings or exchanges to explore alternative solutions and try to reach a consensus.
  2. Formal Complaint: If the disagreement involves a violation of special education laws or regulations, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the party dissatisfied with the outcome of mediation may choose to file a formal complaint with the appropriate agency. This could initiate an investigation and potentially lead to a resolution through a due process hearing or other administrative procedures.
  3. Due Process Hearing: If informal negotiations and mediation fail to resolve the dispute, either party may request a due process hearing. During a due process hearing, an impartial hearing officer listens to evidence and arguments from both sides and issues a decision to resolve the dispute. This process is more formal than mediation and often involves legal representation for both parties.
  4. Maintaining the Status Quo: While the dispute is ongoing, the child’s current IEP and services typically remain in effect. This ensures that the child continues to receive educational services while the parties work to resolve the disagreement. This is called pendency or stay put.

It’s important to note that the specific steps and options available may vary depending on the laws and procedures in place in the relevant jurisdiction.

Additionally, parties involved in special education disputes often have the option to seek guidance from advocacy organizations or a special education attorney to navigate the process effectively.

Preparing for IEP Mediation

  • Prepare an opening statement.
  • No more than 1-2 pages and it will be read at the beginning of meeting.
  • State why you are there, a brief overview of why your child needs this and why it is appropriate.
  • Parents can get a little sentimental but not weepy. Remember this is a business meeting–you’re in the business of getting your child’s needs met.
  • Have your opening paragraph be a few sentences about your awesome child and what makes them awesome.
  • End the statement with that as well-how this is appropriate for your child and how what you are asking for will enable them to “access and benefit from” their education.
  • Stay away from words like “This is the best option…” because IDEA says only that it has to be appropriate, not best.
  • Have others proofread it for you.

Tips for a Successful IEP Mediation

For the day of mediation, get yourself prepared.

  • Get child care for other kids.
  • Eat well.
  • Sleep well.
  • Dress well.
  • Pack a lunch or snacks to keep in the car.
  • Go for a walk/run, meditate, or exercise.
  • Do what it takes to get yourself centered and confident for that day.
  • Have your notes and plans ready.
  • Go to the office supply store and make copies of things to hand out.
  • Have a note pad, pens, your phone turned off.
  • Bring only essential support people such as spouses and advocates and home staff (like home BCBAs).
  • Leave grandparents and other emotional supports at home this time. It can be lengthy, and only if your grandparent/family member is experienced in the field and may have technical information to add, should they be included.

And that’s really it. Many folks have been through it (and survived!) and I want to take away the mystery for you, because it often does work.

One last bit of information is the booklet from Department of Education:

If you have any other questions, ask on our online message boards.

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