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Article of Interest - Dispute Resolution

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Bridges4Kids LogoGAO Report : Dispute Resolution Under IDEA
General Accounting Office, September 9, 2003
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Special Education

Numbers of Formal Disputes Are Generally Low and States Are Using Mediation and Other Strategies to Resolve Conflicts

Results in Brief
The four states we visited reported that disputes between school districts and families have often centered on fundamental issues of identifying students’ need for special education, the development and implementation of their individualized education programs (IEP), and the educational setting in which they were placed. For example, school officials and parents sometimes disagreed about what setting would afford the appropriate educational placement for a student—a regular classroom, a special needs classroom, or a specialized school. Such conflicts can lead to formal disputes. Officials in six of the eight school districts we visited mentioned that disputes had resulted from decisions over students’ educational placements.

While data are limited and inexact, four national studies indicate that the use of the three formal dispute resolution mechanisms has been generally low relative to the number of children with disabilities. Due process hearings, the most resource-intense dispute mechanism, were the least used nationwide. Using data from the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, we calculated that nationwide, in 2000, about 5 due process hearings were held per 10,000 students with disabilities. According to the these data, over three-quarters of the due process hearings had been held in five states— California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania—and the District of Columbia. Mediation activity was also low. Another national study reported in 2003 that the median number of mediations for states was 4 for every 10,000 students with disabilities in school year 1999-2000. In May 2003, SEEP estimated that 4,266 mediation cases occurred during the 1998-99 school year, which we calculated as a rate of about 7 mediations per 10,000 students with disabilities. Also, using the latter study, we calculated that about 10 state complaints were filed for every 10,000 students with disabilities in the 1998-99 school year.

Officials in all four states we visited were emphasizing the use of mediation to resolve disputes between families and school districts, and some states had developed additional approaches for early resolution. State officials told us they found that mediation was successful in resolving disputes, strengthening relationships between families and educators, saving financial resources, and reaching resolution more quickly. The University of the Pacific reported that 93 percent of the mediation cases in California resulted in agreements between families and schools during the 2001-02 fiscal year; the cost of a mediator was about one-tenth that of a hearing officer. In addition, there were a variety of alternative strategies in place in several states and localities to resolve disputes earlier and with less acrimony. For example, Iowa exceeded IDEA requirements by allowing parties to request a pre-appeal conference to mediate disputes prior to filing for a due process hearing. This conference was used five times more often by families and educators than mediation in conjunction with a filing for a due process hearing. Ohio, on the other hand, developed a parent mentor program in which parents of students with disabilities were hired to provide training and information about special education to educators and other parents of children with disabilities and to attend IEP meetings at parent or staff request. Data for measuring the cost-effectiveness of this and other such programs, however, were limited.

Officials in the eight local school districts we interviewed said they had few problems responding to state complaint notifications in a timely way; and those problems were generally minor, causing modest delays. For example, Los Angeles Unified School District officials said that complaint notifications sometimes lacked supporting information, such as copies of the specific IEP in question or relevant mediation agreements or evaluations. In some cases, the notifications did not identify a child’s school or date of birth. These shortcomings, officials indicated, generally caused only a few days’ delay in responding appropriately to the state.


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