The current pandemic has created a crucial need for those experienced in conflict resolution practices to prevent and resolve conflict in students with disabilities. Public agencies, schools, and families should utilize those trained in conflict resolution, including mediators, negotiators, and advocates, to combat this crisis and lessen adverse outcomes for those involved. Federal education authorities suggest frequent communication, creative problem solving, understanding core challenges and interests, and a flexible mindset can reduce conflict. These suggestions are already a part of a conflict resolution practitioner's skill set.
The U.S. Department of Education (USED), Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Office of Civil Rights (OCR), and other primary education and advocacy agencies all recognize the challenges faced in the Special Education of students during these unprecedented times of a pandemic. They also acknowledge that confusion, emotions, and frustrations experienced in Special Education are at an all-time high for all parties involved. These heightened challenges create more conflict and lead to worse outcomes for Special Education students. Despite the pandemic, public education agencies do not have permission to waive any part of FAPE or IDEA or take action to diminish a student, and their family's, education and civil rights1. Instead, Federal Agencies and major advocacy organizations have outlined their expectations of parents, schools, SEAs, and LEAs to work together in a collaborative way. These expectations include finding solutions to provide accommodations and services outlined in a child's 504 or IEP plan and working as a team to find creative and alternative methods to meet the specific needs of students with a disability.
The five major reasons conflict resolution practitioners (CRP) should be utilized in special education, especially during the pandemic, are: they help facilitate communication, can assist parties to identify interests and problems, help create environments of creativity, prevent knowledge loss and save on dispute costs.
# 1 CRPs are Effective Communication Facilitators
Special education communication frequency and effectiveness are expectations of Federal and Advocacy authorities,2. Frequent and effective communication is the most critical component of teamwork. Communication challenges have increased with use of alternate tools and methods, such as e-mails and video meetings, and heightened emotions and frustrations. Broken communication creates ineffective IEP teams. Conflict Resolution Practitioners (CRP) have the skills to help facilitate communication between schools and families. They can help team members avoid miscommunication pitfalls. A CRP can facilitate effective and healthy communication by giving advice, reviewing procedures, and being actively involved in the process.
#2 CRPs can help parties Define and Understand Interests and Problems
A significant component of a communication breakdown comes from a party in a conflict not understanding their interests and needs and those of the other party. When members of an IEP team become engrossed in their emotions and positions, it prevents them from communicating and problem-solving effectively. For example, IEP team members share a common interest in providing a student with a disability an education that will comply with the law and lead to the best possible student outcomes. When team members differ on methods and goals of this shared interest, it can lead to adversarial actions and broken teams. Those trained in conflict resolution processes understand that those involved in a conflict need to separate their issues from the problem. They can help IEP team members identify and focus on their mutual understanding and commonalities.
Conflict Resolution practitioners are trained and experienced in helping parties find common ground through objective criteria and separating interests from positions5. They help parties understand what the real problems are. Negotiators and mediators are exceptionally skilled in this area, and Problem Identification is one of the six classic mediation steps and basic negotiation practices7.
#3 CRPs can maintain Creative and Flexible Environments for Brainstorming
The challenge of maintaining the education of a student with a disability during a pandemic can feel immense. Schools and families must find alternative solutions to provide accommodations and services when typical methods are not possible. They are asked to be flexible and creative to solve problems and work around obstacles, whether a student with a disability is being educated at home or at school. CRPs, especially mediators, are skilled at helping parties in conflict to be creative and flexible in their problem-solving1. In fact, Idea Generation/ Brain Storming is another classic step in the mediation process,.
#4 CRPs can Prevent Knowledge Loss & Regression
The pandemic has impacted students academically by putting them at risk for regression and knowledge loss, which can stem from a lack of access to supports and services. These outcomes can be exacerbated by IEP & 504 teams not working effectively to meet the student's individual needs. When those invested in the student's education cannot work together with creativity and flexibility, it can escalate conflict that results in more formal disputes. Lodging formal complaints through the State Education Agency or the Office of Civil Rights or starting litigation in the court system can further delay resolution, increase animosity, harm student outcomes, and increase regression. Using those trained in conflict resolution to help prevent conflict in general IEP and 504 actions and interactions can decrease further delays and increase teamwork and collaboration effectiveness. Also, use of formal mediation before engaging in more extended dispute resolution systems would provide the same benefits.
#5 The Financial Cost
Tangible costs associated with a more formal dispute resolution process, like, due process hearings and court lawsuits, can be high for both parents and school districts. They may need to pay for; attorneys, advocates, expert witnesses, settlements, etc. The cost of Special Education and Civil Rights litigation can be very high. For example, the San Diego Unified school district paid 2 million dollars in settlements in 2018. If conflict resolution practitioners are utilized before conflict arises or at the early stages of Special Education conflict, it can be more cost-effective for all those involved. This also applies to the use of mediation in the formal dispute process.
Those trained in Conflict Resolution methods are specially situated to ensure that the vulnerable population served in Special Education continues to receive needed services. They can do this by facilitating communication, creating environments for innovation and problem solving, and encouraging productive dialog that focuses on the needs and interests of all those involved in the education of students with disabilities. Utilizing their services can also reduce the high costs of knowledge loss and litigation. CRPs should reach out to SEAs, LEAs, and parents to offer their services, and those same public agencies and parents should consider hiring CRPs to advise and help them become an effective and collaborative team.
 SEA is a State Education Agency & LEA is a Lead Education Agency
 U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos. (2020, April 27). Recommended waiver authority under section 3511(d)(4) of division A of the Coronavirus aid, relief, Economic Security ACT (“Cares Act). https://www2.ed.gov/documents/coronavirus/cares-waiver-report.pdf?utm_content&utm_medium=email&utm_name&utm_source=govdelivery&utm_term
 COPAA (2020). COVID-19 Q&A. Wrights Law. https://www.wrightslaw.com/covid/2020.0331.COPAA.faq.IDEA.COVID.pdf
 United States Department of Education. (2020, September 28). OSEP QA 20-10. https://www2.ed.gov/policy/speced/guid/idea/memosdcltrs/qa-provision-of-services-idea-part-b-09-28-2020.pdf.
 United States Department of Education. (2020, June 22). Part B Dispute resolution in COVID-19 Environmental Q&A documents. https://www2.ed.gov/policy/speced/guid/idea/memosdcltrs/qa-dispute-resolution-procedures-part-b.pdf
 Clark, I. (2016). Fisher and Ury’s four principles of negotiation. Atlas of Public Management. https://www.atlas101.ca/pm/concepts/fisher-and-urys-four-principles-of-negotiation/
 United States Department of Education. (2020, March 21). Supplemental fact sheet addressing the risk of COVID-19 in preschool, elementary and secondary schools while serving children with disabilities. LINK
 Indeed.(n.d.). What is a Mediator?. Career Guide. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/career-development/what-is-a-mediator
 National Center For Learning Disabilities. (2020). Parent advocacy toolkit. https://www.ncld.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/2020-NCLD-Parent-Advocacy-Toolkit_v2.pdf
 Crabtree, R. K. (n.d.). Due Process Hearings. Wrightslaw. https://www.wrightslaw.com/info/dp.hearings.crabtree.htm
 Taketa, K. (2019, October 6). Families endure legal fights trying to get the right special education services. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2019-10-06/legal-fights-families-special-education-services