Handling Disputes with the School


We believe our child, who has a diagnosed learning disability, is not receiving the services she needs. Although we’ve talked to her school, we can’t seem to make any headway. What are our options for resolving our differences?    

M.J. Upshaw

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Pete & Pam Wright

Pete Wright is a nationally recognized attorney specializing in special education law; Pam Wright is a psychotherapist who writes extensively on raising, educating, and advocating for children with disabilities. Together they are the creators of the Wrightslaw special education website.

When schools fail to provide the services parents believe their child needs, a due process hearing—a formal, contested, adversarial trial—is the ultimate route provided by law to resolve disputes. But litigation via due process is not the best way to resolve disputes.

Special education due process cases are similar to medical malpractice cases or bitterly contested divorce cases. When emotions run high, it is likely that a judge will resolve the dispute. After a court issues an order, what happens next? Does litigation end the conflict? Do relationships improve? Does the child receive better services? Unfortunately, the answer is often no.

The alternatives to litigation are negotiation with school personnel or mediation involving a qualified and impartial mediator to facilitate communication toward reaching a mutually acceptable agreement.

Negotiation is the logical starting point. Harvard Law Professor Roger Fisher says, “Like it or not, you are a negotiator. Negotiation is a fact of life.” His book, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In is a terrific resource for developing “win-win” solutions.

In mediation, the parties sit down to discuss problems and solutions. If the matter is successfully resolved, the parties create the settlement terms and conditions. If the parties are fully involved in the process, they have an emotional investment in the success of the agreement and the settlements are rarely breached.

Negotiation and mediation are not easy, but despite difficulties we encourage parents and school officials to use these methods to resolve disputes. In most cases, the outcome is better than litigation.

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