Mishon Johnson, California native and mother of three boys first began advocating for her 2nd born son, Evan, who was diagnosed with Autism at the age for 2 in 2014. Evan was in early intervention at the age of 16 months when regression was noticed. The transition of advocating was helped tremendously by her extensive background in the child development field for over 15 years.
Leigh’s 25 years in special education advocacy began with her autistic son. He was in a low-expectation special day class with only four picture icons to communicate and now he attends a four-year university. This was due to extensive determination, persistence, and advocacy.
Anne has been a special education and disability resource lay advocate since 1991, a paralegal since 2005, and an educational psychologist since 2013.
Mediation is an opportunity for the district administrator (in many cases the special-education director) to sit down with a family and negotiate in the presence of a mediator. Typically, the mediator is an administrative law judge (ALJ). And the mediation usually takes place at the school district office.
Below are some common questions families have about mediation. Have additional questions? Be sure to reach out to us.
QUESTION: WHERE IS THE MEDIATION?
Typically, it is at the school district headquarters. You will receive a scheduling order that provides the address. You can also find the address by googling the school district where your child attends.
QUESTION: DO I NEED TO ATTEND?
Yes. You should.
QUESTION: WHAT TIME DOES IT START?
QUESTION: WHEN DOES IT END?
It depends. Some mediations last fewer than 30 minutes; others are longer than 12 hours. Typically, mediations are wrapped around 4:00 PM. If you have scheduling conflicts (e.g. I have to pick up my child at 2:30 PM), let your attorney know.
QUESTION: WHAT SHOULD I WEAR?
Business casual attire is appropriate. Mediation is a formal process with lawyers and judges. While it is not conducted in a courthouse, it is an event that you should dress up for. That being said, you do not need to wear a suit.
QUESTION: WHAT IS MEDIATION?
Mediation is a form of “alternative dispute resolution.” The alternative is going to court, where a single judge (in the case of special education) decides your case. At mediation, you get to be involved in the solution (called a “settlement agreement”). Special education mediation is like civil mediation, divorce mediation, and other forms of negotiation (e.g. purchasing a home) with which you may be familiar. A “neutral” (a judge, who doesn’t work for the school district or for you) mediator will do her/his best to help you and the school district reach a settlement agreement you are mostly satisfied with. Like every negotiation, neither party will get everything they want.
QUESTION: WHO IS THE MEDIATOR?
Mediators are “Administrative Law Judges” (ALJ) for the “Office of Administrative Hearings” (OAH). They are usually judges who hear special education cases. The mediator who is assigned to your child’s mediation will not be the judge who hears your case if your case goes to a hearing.
QUESTION: WHAT IS IT LIKE?
Mediation often begins with the mediator speaking to the student’s family. The mediator will explain some basic rules of mediation and how she/he likes to run mediations. Then the mediator may call the school district representatives (usually an attorney and a special education program specialist) into the room where the family is located. An “opening statement” may be requested. Your lawyer will do much of the talking and may ask you to share your impressions of your child’s progress (or lack thereof). This may seem scary, but most clients find it cathartic. A starting dollar amount may be presented by your lawyer at this point. The district may respond. Then, the mediator usually leaves with the district and they “caucus” in a separate room. The mediator often walks back and forth between the rooms presenting offers. Each mediation is different. Be prepared to wait for long periods.
QUESTION: SHOULD I EXPECT A SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT?
Most cases settle without going to hearing. Often, this does not happen at the mediation. Do not be disappointed if your mediation does not end with a signed agreement. Your lawyer will continue conversations with the other side in the days/weeks following the mediation.
QUESTION: WILL WE TALK BEFOREHAND?
Yes. Please schedule a time 1-5 days before your mediation to speak with your lawyer. Think about what you hope to obtain and what your “bottom line” is prior to this telephone call.
QUESTION: WHAT ARE THE BASIC RULES?
Mediation is a “confidential” process. This means that anything you say, can be said candidly. The same is true for the school district. It is confidential in that you cannot use things admitted at mediation against the confessor (e.g. the school district says “Parent, you’re right. We failed your child.” You cannot use this confidential statement at the hearing). This rule exists so that parties will speak openly.
The mediator will keep information confidential. If you want the mediator to convey a specific message, you should be clear (e.g. “I authorize you to share that my child doesn’t really like her teacher.”) so that the mediator understands this is not confidential information.
Settlement agreements are ordinarily confidential. If you sign one during or after mediation, you cannot share the information in the agreement with others (e.g. you cannot post on Facebook “I creamed the school. They’re putting my son in private school because they screwed up.”)
QUESTION: SHOULD I BRING ANYTHING?
Yes. If you have receipts for services you have funded, you should bring them along with bank statement proving your payment. You should also bring any records about your child that you have easily accessible (if you keep an IEP binder, bring that). Also, bring snacks and beverages. Mediation can be a long process and lunch breaks are sometimes skipped. Bringing food is wise.
QUESTION: SHOULD I BE AFRAID?
No. You are in good hands and your lawyer is very comfortable with mediations. While mediation is a formal process, it is conducted with a friendly, solution-focused manner most of the time. Spending many hours with your lawyer allows you to connect, discuss the case in great detail, and share information about your child. Mediation is an exhausting, but not scary event. Do not be afraid.
Juliet Barraza is the parent of two young boys, one of whom has developmental disabilities and epilepsy.
John is an Elder Law attorney practicing in Pasadena, California. He became an Elder Law attorney in large part due to his experience caring for his mother. She was afflicted with a neurodegenerative disease in early middle age.
At about 11 months we suspected our son has autism. However, it was not until 24 months that we finally found someone who would confirm our concerns, and at that time, fears!
As you already know, understanding the best path forward for kids is daunting. Especially so in the beginning when we know the least.
Sometimes (more than sometimes for me), we need the advice and help of an expert. At CSNLG we have a list of providers with specific expertise in various areas. We are continuing our efforts to bring those experts, and their knowledge, to you.
Take a look at our experts page to see who we recommend and have worked with in the past. Check back once in a while as we are continuing to add more folks.
If you don’t see anybody that fits your needs, feel free to reach out to us.
Valerie Aprahamian, Founder of Advocates For Angels, is a Non-Attorney Advocate, Author, Teacher of Special Education Law, and Speaker. Valerie’s life work has been to assist parents of special needs children in the development of their child’s Individual Education Program (IEP)—to enable each child to reach the highest expression of themselves and fulfill their potential in living a meaningful life.
Lynda is an Educational Consultant and Advocate who helps families with the Special Education process to receive the best placement and services for their special needs child.