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Video Transcript: What is Mediation?

Narrator: It’s well known that parents and educators sometimes disagree about how to help students with disabilities do well in school. What is not well known is that there is a quick and inexpensive way to resolve these disagreements: Mediation.

In mediation, those involved in a special education disagreement sit down with a neutral mediator and create their own solutions. This may sound a little different at first. Parents and educators may say, “If I disagree with them, why would I sit down to talk about it?” Since they haven’t been able to reach a decision, they may believe their dispute should be decided by someone else – a hearing officer, a complaint investigator, perhaps even a judge.

When they are In the middle of a disagreement, however, parents and educators may forget an important fact: They are part of a team – the Individualized Education Program Team – that works on behalf of a student with a disability. The team is part of a long-term collaborative relationship designed to help the student succeed in school and beyond.

They may also forget to ask each other some important questions that can help resolve their issues, such as:

  • What does the student need now?
  • What school and parent needs must be met to support the student?
  • What options exist to meet those needs?
  • What information do we need to select the appropriate option?
  • What resources are available to support this option?
  • How do we make sure our solution is implemented?

Mediators create a conversation in which these questions can be explored. Parents and educators may reveal misunderstandings or misperceptions about the student or each other that can be corrected. They may discover common ground they never knew existed. Most important, they may trigger ideas for fostering student achievement. 

The mediation session underway here, for example, involves Jill, who is a 6th grade student with a learning disability. Mary, her mother, is participating with Jill’s special education teacher, Linda, the school’s computer room aide, John, and the school’s principal, Christine. Bill is the mediator. Let’s listen.

Bill: Thank you for agreeing to try mediation to resolve this matter. We’re here to see if an appropriate solution can be developed for Jill. I will ask you questions about how you see the issues, what you feel we should discuss, and what ideas you might have for resolving the issues. To foster a productive conversation I suggest we agree to some ground rules. We’ll speak one at a time without interruptions and keep our cell phones silent. If you have an idea or a comment, please jot it down on the pad so you remember to raise it at the right time. Let’s also reserve judgment on what we hear until all the possibilities that you can think of for Jill are on the table. Then we’ll see what we have to work with. Can everyone agree with that or are there other suggestions?

Participants: (Nods all around.)

Narrator: Please remember that while I can help you have a balanced and thorough discussion, I have no authority make any decisions for you. Decisions regarding Jill’s program are entirely up to you. Also keep in mind that you are not required to reach an agreement and there is no penalty for not reaching one. There are other dispute resolution mechanisms available to you. Does anyone have any questions or comments about the process? If not, Mary, why don’t we start with you?

Mary: In most ways Jill is like all 6th grade girls. She is silly and loves to be with her friends. But she has a reading disability and as the classes get harder, she is falling further behind. It takes her more time than other students to understand what she’s reading and get through her assignments. She’s not able to take full advantage of the computers like other kids who can work faster. I believe she should get more time on the computers to finish her assignments and I think it’s the school’s responsibility to make that happen.

Bill: Thank you, Mary. What’s your perspective, Linda?

Linda: Jill does receive time on the computers along with all the other students.

Christine: Our computer capacity is limited, though, and we have to make sure we serve all the students. We all want to keep Jill in her classes, though.

Narrator: Mary and Christine have stated their basic positions. Mary believes Jill should have more computer time. Christine believes there is none available. Bill probes a little deeper to learn why they have taken these positions.

Bill: Mary, can you tell us how you think extra computer time will help Jill?

Mary: I’m hoping it will keep her from falling behind or from getting lower grades. When she comes home she sometimes says her friends in class are ahead of her.  She also feels she sometimes has to rush her work.

Bill: I see. And Christine –

Christine:  Additional computer time may help Jill. But we’re kind of at gridlock with the machines. Demand is high and we have to make sure all students have a chance to use them.

Narrator: Bill is encouraging Mary and Christine to talk about the interests or needs behind their positions. Mary is searching for a way to help Jill maintain her grades and keep up with her class. Christine, while concerned about Jill, sees computer time as a measure of how well the school is serving all students.  With a better understanding of their concerns, Bill shifts the focus of the discussion to Jill.

Bill: We seem to be talking about Jill in somewhat general terms. Can we define exactly what she needs?

Linda: I think we’re talking about a reading comprehension issue. Jill may need more help in understanding and getting through her assignments. That may mean not just more computer time, but presenting the material to her in different ways. She may be able to process better by hearing her assignments in addition to reading them.

Bill: Mary?

Mary: I can see that.

Bill: Would that enable her to make more efficient use of the computer time she already receives?

Linda: Perhaps down the road. At first I think it will extend her computer time.

Mary: I agree. I don’t think that would happen right away.

Bill: John, have you observed Jill in the computer room?

John: I can detect some frustration with Jill when she’s at the machines, but she doesn’t vocalize it to me. I would just add that, while I agree that the computers are in full use when her class is in the room, I think there’s space for another machine.

Narrator: Here is where mediation departs most sharply from people’s expectations. Bill is not a hearing officer or a complaint investigator. He is not an advocate for either Mary or the school district.  He is trained in special education issues, but has no authority to decide the issues facing the group at the table. What he can do is focus the conversation on everyone’s needs – especially Jill’s – and possible ways of meeting those needs.

Bill: Let me share with you what I am hearing, and please correct me if this is not how you see it. Mary, you’re concerned that Jill keeps up with her work. Christine, you’re concerned with using the school’s computer resources fairly and efficiently. There is some possibility that Jill could benefit not only by more computer time but also with alternative ways of learning her assignments. And there is room for an additional machine in the computer room. Is that accurate an accurate summary?
Participants: (Nods around the table.)

Bill: Okay. It seems to me then that we have moved beyond a discussion strictly about computer time. Should we explore what else might be done to meet Jill’s needs?

Participants: (Words of agreement.)

Narrator: Bill’s questioning has helped the participants open the discussion. They have broken their impasse over computer time and are focusing on Jill’s needs, not a predetermined solution.  They can now pursue Linda’s suggestion about alternative ways to help Jill. They can explore the question of obtaining an additional computer. And they can also consider the logistics of making additional computer time available.

After further discussion, the group comes up with a plan. The school will seek a donated computer for the computer room. In addition to her regular time in the computer room, Jill will spend 30 minutes of her homeroom time in the computer room three days a week. John or another aide will read assignments to Jill and work on her comprehension during those periods. Mary, John and the homeroom teacher will monitor Jill’s planner to make sure Jill attends her sessions. The school will report Jill’s progress to Mary on a weekly basis. If Mary is not showing some progress after three weeks, the group will reconvene.

Bill now drafts a written agreement, which all the participants review for accuracy. The agreement notes that the mediation discussion has been confidential. This means that no one who participated, including the mediator, can be called to testify about the discussion at a later hearing or court proceeding, should one arise. Mary signs the agreement and Christine signs for the school. They now have a binding agreement that, if not carried out, they can take to court.

Special education disputes can become very complex. But in mediation the same dynamic is always at work. Bill and mediators like him can help those closest to the student explore the issues one at a time. By asking probing questions, they can help parents and educators break an impasse and generate options. The participants will often find the best answers among themselves.

Mediation works best when used early, while people are open to alternative ideas. You can request mediation services by contacting the Michigan Special Education Mediation Program. An intake specialist will gather information about the dispute, then contact the other party and ask whether they wish to participate. Mediation is a voluntary process, so both the parent and the school must consent to participate in mediation before a mediation session is scheduled. If both agree, the intake specialist will schedule a session at a mutually convenient time.

Parents and educators who choose to use mediation may also use the formal complaint processes if they wish. Those avenues always remain available.

Participants: (Exchange thank you’s, shake hands as they prepare to leave.)

Narrator: But mediation takes less time than a hearing or a complaint investigation. That means that appropriate services get to the student more quickly.

And mediation has an excellent track record. It turns people who are at odds with each other into problem solvers. It works because the solutions are fashioned by those who care most.