What You Need to Know About Alternative Dispute Resolution
When it comes to disagreements between parents and a child’s IEP team, emotions sometimes run high, and for good reason — parents and educators can have fundamental differences in how we see our child’s education and future. But, as many of us have learned by now, maintaining a good — or at least polite — relationship with our IEP team and larger school district is important, for the simple reason that you never know what you might need as your child grows. Keeping the lines of communication open and honest ensures that all parties can maintain the same goal: a fair and appropriate education for your child.
One way to achieve this when IEP disputes occur is via alternative dispute resolution, or ADR. Intended as a first stop before mediation and due process, ADR is a voluntary service that is funded by the federal government and a state’s Department of Education. In California, ADRs are typically facilitated by your Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA), which is a group of school districts, charter schools, and County Offices of Education that provide special education and related services to students with disabilities.
To find out more about this sometimes elusive process, we spoke with two professional mediators, both of whom have overseen resolution meetings for decades (on BOTH sides of the table) — Marc Purchin, professional ADR mediator and founder of Purchin Consulting, and Jason Harper, ADR consultant for the Southwest SELPA and founder of Harper Conflict Resolution.
What is ADR in school?
According to the Advocacy Institute, “ADR is defined as any means of resolving a dispute outside a courtroom.” The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that states offer several types of dispute resolution, including ADR and mediation. These differ in some important ways. ADR is a resolution option that is available before you file for a due process hearing, or preferably instead of due process. It is entirely voluntary, and is less formal than a hearing. Mediation happens after you file for due process, but before the process moves to a hearing, and is mandatory (though you can waive it). If a parent and district cannot settle during mediation, the next step is a resolution session. These sessions must be held within fifteen days of a parent’s request for a hearing, and the complaint must be resolved within thirty days of that request. If not, the hearing will be held.
In sum, while ADR is still relatively rare, it is available to everyone under the IDEA regardless of where they live or which school district they’re in. In California, your SELPA will assign a neutral mediator to oversee the ADR. Because ADR offers a way for both parent and district to find a middle ground, the process can help everyone avoid costly legal fees and get to the root of the matter faster. Agreeing to an ADR meeting, however, does NOT waive your right to due process, which is still an option if you come out of an ADR meeting without reaching some sort of agreement.
What form ADR takes will depend on your district, and may include informal resolution meetings or facilitated IEPs (both of which involve a broader level of agreement between both parties). But however it happens, it’s important to keep that IEP team relationship top of mind.
“Families shouldn’t have to file for due process in order to be heard,” says Marc Purchin, who, together with Purchin Consulting, maintains contracts with a number of SELPAs. He reports that more government funding has been directed toward the process of ADR, due in part to Covid-related unfinished learning, but also to provide an incentive for all parties to resolve disagreements earlier. Purchin and his staff train parents on how to have those uncomfortable conversations in the most effective way possible.
“Special education services start at three years old and students age out at twenty-two — that’s a nineteen-year-long relationship,” says Jason Harper. “You have to see these folks every day, so because of that we want to be mindful of how we communicate and how we address certain things. We want to be intentional at the outset and get an understanding of how people’s thought processes work.” In other words, when a big issue comes up, a parent may be able to find a better outcome with less disagreement if they’ve learned how the people on their child’s IEP team think and tend to react.
How do I ask for ADR?
In most cases, a parent should call their SELPA directly, or ask their IEP case manager to call the SELPA for them. (You can find your SELPA’s contact info on this CA Dept. of Ed webpage — scroll down a bit for the list.) In L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD), however, parents must call the Educational Equity Compliance Office (details here).
Remember that ADR is 100 percent voluntary, so both sides need to agree to attend the meeting, and no one is forced into an outcome. At times, one side won’t want to pursue ADR if they’ve felt informal avenues have been exhausted and a solution is not within reach.
Harper says that sometimes the school district is the first to reach out to him, but many times it’s the family that initiates contact, and then he will get the ball rolling for ADR with the district. Purchin is a proponent of clients bringing whomever makes them most comfortable to the table, even if that means an advocate or attorney; however, the point of ADR is to be speedy and reach an agreement BEFORE involving legal representation on either side.
“I also always have both the parents and district sign a confidentiality agreement saying that none of the discussions can be used against the other party if due process is filed,” says Purchin. That way everyone involved can brainstorm freely and not feel like they have to watch what they say.
Is virtual ADR a good option?
“Over the years, parents have become more aware of ADR, but the transition to online dispute resolution and IEP meetings has been a game changer,” explains Harper. Availability has exploded thanks to the virtual option; more of the IEP team can attend, as can the family, which gives them the opportunity of having a more united front as well.
Harper hopes that districts also take the opportunity to look at how some aspects of virtual life actually made things better. “While one con is that you are missing that face-to-face, in-person interaction, the virtual option makes participants much more comfortable and open. And when you’re more relaxed, you have a clearer head to make better, more informed decisions on behalf of the student.”
Things to remember in ADR
- Do away with a one-track mindset:
There will rarely be one right answer to any issue being discussed during ADR. So, shift your mindset to: what are the options or possibilities here? “People get so hung up on one specific outcome to solve the problem that they don’t think about the other options in play,” Harper says. “I had a family that was requesting a 1:1 aide. Everyone was going in circles on why this was needed. When I spoke with them one on one, they revealed that their child had gotten hurt playing during recess. So, safety was at the root of their desire, and that was not particularly articulated in the meeting. I said, ‘Let’s have a conversation about safety, then, and talk about other remedies to address safety on the school campus.’ We ended up with about twelve different options to address safety and the family was blown away.”
Get it in writing:
“If there is an agreement, I recommend putting that in writing and have the district representative and the parents sign, which is good for compliance too,” Purchin says.
“Be hard on the problem and gentle with each other,” Purchin advises.
Those words ring true for so many instances in life.