When it comes to disagreements with the school parents should be aware of the procedural safeguards that exist for resolving disputes including mediation and special education hearings. We'll walk through these and the options parents have, including those before a dispute arises, but we also recommend you consult our page on The Foundations of Effective Collaboration as often the best outcomes for children will lie in collaboration with the school.
Options Before there is a Dispute
If you are having trouble working with your special education team you should be aware that there are options open to you before a dispute arises.
Contact Reading District Special Education Staff
Within the Town of Reading, you always have the option of contacting the student services special education staff. The Director of Special Education for Reading and Assistant Superintendent oversee special education across the district, and part of their responsibility is hearing special-education related complaints from parents. They hold regular office hours which parents can sign up for and may be able to provide guidance or support, as well as carrying authority within the district.
Parents or the school can always request meeting facilitation from the Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA). Both the school and parents will need to agree to a facilitator. Facilitators are trained professionals and will work to help all sides find an outcome they can agree on in the best interest of the child. There is no cost to either the school or parents as facilitation is offered as a free service by BSEA. Facilitation is available equally for children on IEPs and Section 504 Plans.
A facilitator doesn't have a formal role in a meeting but acts as a communications expert and neutral party with the aim of helping the IEP or 504 team to communicate and collaborate more effectively.
When a dispute does occur mediation is typically the first option for resolution. As with facilitation all parties need to agree to mediation. Its worth noting that schools are required to report to Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA) within 5 days of an IEP being rejected and will typically request mediation at that point. As a parent, you can also specifically request mediation at any time and should know that mediation is available equally as an option for students with an IEP and Section 504 plan.
Once mediation is agreed to a meeting will be scheduled and a trained mediator from BSEA will join to guide the meeting. The mediator will have the school and parents walk through the dispute to better understand each others positions and will work to guide all parties toward an agreement.
Its important to note that a mediator has no authority to impose a decision, unlike a hearing officer. The mediator's role is to help you and the school to better understand one another's positions and to suggest potential compromises to come to an agreement, but at the end of the day its still up to you and the school to see whether you can find agreement.
If an agreement is reached the mediator will formally document the agreement and have all parties sign it. This document will be legally binding and will include:
Who is responsible for implementing the agreement
The time frame for implementation
A detailed breakout of the actions expected of each party
Parents should know that they can bring additional parties, such as an advocate or even an attorney with them to the mediation meeting and that they can request to meet separately with the mediator.
If considering bringing an attorney, you should be aware that there is significant debate on whether this is a good idea (see here). The Bureau of Special Education Appeals notes in its reference manual, "Because mediation is less formal than hearings, parties generally mediate without representation. Either party may choose to bring a lawyer, and then the party should notify the Mediator in advance that a lawyer will be present."
Hearings and Due Process
Parents can request a hearing at any time through the Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA). The process that governs hearings is somewhat complex and we won't be able to cover anything beyond the very basics here.
The Basics of Hearings
Following an Appeal being filed with BSEA the school will look organize what's called a resolution meeting. This is essentially the last opportunity to resolve the dispute before a hearing and parents can choose to attend or not. Schools are not allowed to bring attorneys to a resolution meeting unless the parents do. Both sides can also agree to mediation at this point as an alternative
A hearing officer will be assigned by the Bureau of Special Education Appeals, who will make the decision regarding the dispute if the resolution meeting is unsuccessful
Either side can request a settlement conference to settle the case before a hearing but only when both sides are represented by attorneys
Otherwise the case will go to a formal hearing, essentially a legal proceeding with rules of evidence etc. Unlike mediation neither party can speak separately to the hearing officer. Parents should be aware that schools almost certainly will have attorneys representing them
Hearing rulings can be appealed
Schools are required to implement the decision of the hearing officer if parents win or in the case of a split decision. If they do not parents can file a complaint with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
The whole process is often called "due process"
Parent Should be Aware
As CADRE notes, "Due process is considered the most adversarial, least collaborative dispute resolution option, and may damage the working relationship between educators and families." Whereas mediation is still essentially a collaborative processes involving parents and educators with outside assistance, a hearing is more adversarial and almost always involves lawyers, at least from the school
You should be aware that parents track record of winning hearings is not particularly strong in Massachusetts. A multi-year study in 2015 showed schools winning 62.5% of hearings. This is largely consistent with the Bureau of Special Education Appeals' statistics for 2022 which show that schools won 9 of 14 full hearings (64%).
The 2015 study also provides a helpful break-down of results based on whether parents were represented by an attorney. Per the study:
Parents with attorney representation won 30.8% of hearings, lost 39.4%, and had mixed decisions in 29.8%
Parents without an attorney won only 10.7% of the hearings, lost 68.9%, and had mixed decisions in 20.4%
Parents with advocates won 20.5% of the hearings, lost 51.3%, and had mixed decisions in 28.2%
Parents should also be aware that attorney fees might be covered as part of a hearing decision if they prevail (e.g. payed for by the school if the hearing officer finds in favor of the parents). This is never the case for advocates.
Understanding these statistics and the nature of the mediation and hearing processes we hope can be helpful to you in determining the best route to resolving your dispute with the a school and in determining when to engage professionals in the process.
For More Information
How to Request Mediation or a Special Education Hearing
Request a BSEA Hearing - Massachusetts Bureau of Special Education Appeals
Request for mediation - Massachusetts Bureau of Special Education Appeals
Facilitators for IEP Team Meetings - Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA)
Learn about mediation at the BSEA -- Massachusetts Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA)
Preparing for mediation - Massachusetts Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA)
Frequently Asked Questions about Mediation at the BSEA - Massachusetts Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA)
Mediation Brochure - Massachusetts Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA)
What Happens at a BSEA Hearing - Massachusetts Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA)
Learn about the due process hearing - Massachusetts Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA)
Bureau of Special Education Appeals REFERENCE MANUAL - Massachusetts Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA)
Hearing Rules for Special Education Appeals - Massachusetts Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA)
Data on Disputes & Rejected Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) - Massachusetts Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA)
603 CMR 28.08: Continuum of Options for Dispute Resolution - Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
Complaint Procedures Guide - Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
IDEA Special Education Mediation - The Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE)
Overview of Mediation (Video) - The Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE)
Preparing for Mediation (Video) - The Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE)
Yes, you should consider Special Education Mediation for your IEP Dispute - A Day In Our Shoes
IDEA Due Process Complaints/ Hearing Requests - The Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE)
Overview of Due Process Complaints (Video) - The Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE)
What to Expect After a Complaint is Filed (Video) - The Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE)
The Role of Attorneys in Special Education Mediation - The Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE)
IDEA Special Education Resolution Meetings - The Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE)
Resolving Special Education Disputes - Disability Law Center
IDEA Special Education Written State Complaints - The Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE)
Please note that we at Reading SEPAC cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any information presented on any third-party website listed on this site, nor do we endorse any informational content appearing on third-party websites of any of the providers listed. We endeavor only to provide a listing of potentially helpful information available. Its up to you, as a consumer, to do your own diligence and research. Also note that any summarization of the laws, rules, regulations, processes or similar related to special education, or advice proffered is based exclusively on the experience of Reading SEPAC members as parents of children with special needs. Its in no way an official reflection of the position of the FCSA or the Reading School system and we make no claims of expertise in communication, law, education or any other areas. While we have endeavored to provide simple-to-read language for parents, we are not experts, do not claim to be, and make no warranties or claims of accuracy related to the informational content of this website.