Mediation is an alternative dispute resolution process designed to foster settlements between disputing parties and hopefully avoid the need for expensive litigation. The mediation process can be stressful for parents unfamiliar with it unless they know the rules.
So here is a handy guide to the rules of special education mediation.
Rules of Mediation
Special ed mediations must always occur at the district board of education office so that parents and their advocates are the only ones inconvenienced (and intimidated) by the location. Initially, the parties convene in one room, then separate into two rooms because by the time mediation is necessary, they can no longer stand the sight of each other.
A box of doughnuts will appear which will be offered to district staff and the mediator only. Parents and their advocates are left to fish around in their purses for a leftover Certs purchased during the Reagan Administration. But parents need to keep a keen eye on those doughnuts. The mediator will munch on them during the course of the day. Parents should know that as the doughnuts disappear, the sands of their hourglass are running out. If the parties fail to reach agreement by the time the doughnuts are gone, the wicked witch will arrive and take the parties to due process.
The mediator’s job is to shuttle back and forth between the rooms and communicate to one party what the other party said. I have often wondered why this job requires the services of a human being. My office dog, Lou, could just as easily carry a note attached to his collar to and from the rooms, all for the price of a few liver treats. When I offered his services for this purpose, however, I was told that dogs aren’t allowed in the board offices. I think that was an excuse, though, because while I was speaking to the superintendent, Lou was engaging in an embarrassing act of personal hygiene.
At any rate, the first offer to settle made to parents at mediation by the school district will be a horribly insulting one such as:
“We promise not to do ________ at IEP meetings (choose one):
(a) talk about you or your child as if you weren’t there
(b) gasp audibly at your Future Planning Statement
(c) express disbelief at the results of your child’s private, independent evaluation
(d) whisper to each other so you can’t hear what is being said.
Parents must treat this first offer, no matter what it is, as they would a poopy diaper. Pick up the piece of paper on which it is written while holding your nose and deposit it directly in the circular file. Then get up and appear to be getting ready to leave. The mediator, who wants to be paid for the whole day and has yet to finish all the doughnuts, will beg you to stay and to return next time with a better offer.
This process of offer and rejection will continue all day without interruption or until you pass out from hunger and thirst. All the while district staff and their lawyer are dining on pizza and salad. You know this because the mediator now has tomato sauce on his lapel and his breath smells from garlic.
At the end of the day, parents will be asked to sign a written mediation agreement presented to them by the mediator with the instruction that no changes can be made, and they have only three minutes to review it. The mediator will stare at his watch while you read it so that you will feel as pressured as possible.
The language of most mediation agreements goes something like this:
WHEREAS, Johnny’s parents are a royal pain in the ass, and
WHEREAS, The District has never, ever, done anything wrong and always follows the law to the letter,
WHEREAS, The District is paying its lawyer $300.00 per hour from PARENTS’ tax money,
WHEREAS, the doughnuts are gone and the mediator wants to get the hell out of here,
NOW, THEREFORE, The parties reach the following agreement:
1. Johnny will no longer receive speech therapy from the janitor, but will instead receive therapy from a licensed speech pathologist;
2. Johnny will not be required to participate in the singing of the “Hello” song and “The Wheels on the Bus” now that he has reached his 15th birthday.
3. The previous IEP will be torn up into itty bitty pieces and a brand new one will be drafted so the parties can start fighting about that one in time for our next mediation to occur in three months.
4. Parents agree to WAIVE any and all claims against the District from the beginning of time to the end of time and can never bring any claim against the District ever again for any reason whatsoever, not even if Johnny is accidentally left outside at recess when the temperature is 2 degrees. Also, parents agree that District does not have to pay their attorney fees even though the District’s lawyer made enough money on the mediation alone to buy a small yacht.
5. Parents are prohibited from speaking about the terms of this agreement, even to each other, on pain of death.
6. The parties understand that this entire mediation means nothing since the State Department of Education has not provided any means for enforcement of this agreement.
District staff will then emerge from their segregated room, well-fed and happy, shake the parents’ hands, and remind the mediator that he promised to meet them for dinner at 6:00.
The mediation is officially over when the parents feel as though the “The Wheels on the Bus” have just rolled over them.