Dispute Settlement Counsel by Michael Zeytoonian.
There is a personal reason and a law practice philosophy reason why we represent clients – parents and families of special education children – in disputes involving special education matters and include this area of practice in our services.
The personal reason is that I’ve gotten to know some of these people and the challenges they face when they are trying to do all they can to provide the best education, therapy and otherwise for their children with special needs. Often these are children on the autism spectrum, or kids with ADHD or other mental health related diagnoses. Their families face many challenges of all kinds – logistical, scheduling, financial, and sometimes drained energies and resources. First hand, I’ve seen those children who work with my wife, Lisa, a therapeutic riding instructor at the BINA Farm Center. I’ve seen these kids make amazing progress working with instructors and horses, and their faces and energies light up through this kind of therapy, and the changes in their beings.
It is agonizing for parents and for all involved, when a child is not in the right educational placement or getting the right types and amounts of services. I have seen and heard of how a child’s progress is heightened when he or she gets into the right educational placement with the right level of services. It’s amazing and gratifying, and more than enough reason to want to help them and their families as their legal counsel in special education cases. It’s rewarding to work as part of an administrative law process with school districts and parents to achieve a result that is good for everyone involved.
The law–related/philosophical reason I like working on these cases is because the system of dispute resolution employed by the overseeing agency – the Board of Special Education Appeals or “BSEA” – is designed the right way. It is designed to foster negotiations first, on many levels, between parents and school districts and to achieve a good result. Only when all the “alternative dispute resolution” or “ADR” processes used do not reach a successful resolution, then and only then do the parties go to a formal hearing. Early mediation is built into the process. Several opportunities to negotiate and collaborate are built into the process, including a “settlement conference”. All of these tools can be very effective in coming to a good resolution. The BSEA statistics show that very few of the disputes end up going to a hearing.
The system is designed to resolve through negotiation first, and then, only if needed, do the parties resort to “litigation” in the form of a hearing. There are provisions for any important and relevant information to be shared and it is very streamlined, not requiring the excessive and burdensome discovery process that is a large part of litigation’s time and costs. There are no juries. The mediators, the settlement conference facilitator and the hearing officers are all neutral and well versed in this area of law.
Earlier above I referred to working “with” school districts, because a successful result requires school districts and parents, represented by lawyers and/or advocates, to work together to achieve it. While there are disputes, and parties disagree, there are important and ongoing relationships here between parents, students, teachers and school districts that need to be maintained and when possible, to stay healthy. So jumping right into adversarial and positional litigation and filing a complaint and initiating a lawsuit in the courts would not serve some basic needs in these cases, one being the need to maintain relationships. The BSEA’s administrative approach to resolving disputes is completely consistent with Dispute Resolution Counsel’s approach and philosophy as to how to resolve disputes effectively. They are both based on using a process designed to serve the situation presented and for achieving a good resolution, rather than an adversarial system which damages relationships and can only result in a win-lose (or lose-lose) outcome.
So knowing that these kids and their families are being well served by the work the lawyers, advocates, school districts, teachers, mental health professionals, mediators and hearing officers do on these disputes – as well as by the process that serves them – is satisfying. Helping them to reach a good resolution of their dispute so they can get back to the important work of raising, educating, serving, molding, and taking care of the needs of these children is a worthy place to apply our legal skills and talents.
That’s why we include representing parents and children with special education issues and disputes in the services Dispute Resolution Counsel provides for our clients. It’s an important field of work with deserving families and educators being served by both the legal and educational communities, and an effective and efficient way to work together to do some real problem solving.
This is the complete interview by Robert Benjamin with Greg Bourne, national public policy mediation leader, filmed as part of Mediate.com's "Views from the Eye of the Storm" Video Series.By Greg Bourne