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Chapter 11: Dispute Resolution Options — Understanding Your Options for Settling Disputes

Children With Needs - Students With Disabilities

Who is this for?

This chapter is for parents who either disagree with the school district's assessment or educational program for their child or who believe that the school district has violated any of the requirements of IDEA.

Why is this important?

Good communication between parents and schools will minimize disputes and disagreements. However, when disagreements arise, IDEA provides several avenues for handling such disputes. Parents should be familiar with the options available for settling disputes and for reporting lack of compliance.


What can parents do?

IDEA 2004 maintains the complaint procedures for reporting violations to your state education department. Parents should be aware of all of these options and should know how to make the best use of them.

IDEA Words and Terms to Know 

  • Mediation

    A confidential, voluntary process that allows parties to resolve disputes without a formal due process hearing. An impartial mediator helps the parties to express their views and positions and to understand the other’s views and positions. The mediator’s role is to facilitate discussion and help parties reach an agreement — not to recommend solutions or take positions or sides.

  • Due Process Hearing

    A formal, quasi-legal procedure before an impartial hearing officer or administrative law judge (or panel of judges) who is not an employee of the state education agency or school district. Both the parents and the school district present arguments and evidence.

  • Due Process Complaint

    A written complaint filed by a parent or a school district involving any matter relating to the identification, evaluation, educational placement or provision of a free appropriate public education to a student with a disability. Due process complaints must be filed within two years of the matter in dispute.

  • Resolution Session

    A mandatory meeting that the school district must convene within 15 days of receiving the parents’ due process complaint. The resolution session includes parents, members of the IEP team relevant to the complaint, and a representative of the school district who has decision-making authority.

  • State Complaint

    A written complaint that can be filed by any organization or individual claiming that a school district within the state has either violated a requirement of Part B of IDEA (the part that contains all requirements regarding the delivery of special education services) or the state’s special education law or regulations. State complaints must be filed within one year of the alleged violation.


In Chapter 4 you learned about the Procedural Safeguards that protect parents' and students' rights throughout the special education process, including parents' rights to mediation and to present and resolve a complaint through the due process complaint or state complaint process. In this chapter you will learn about the various options for resolving disputes presented through these complaint procedures.


green_exclamation[New] IDEA 2004 expands the dispute resolution options available to parents and school districts to resolve disagreements. It promotes the use of mediation as an early dispute resolution option by allowing mediation prior to filing a due process complaint. It also adds an additional option, called a resolution session, to the array of options that were available in previous versions of IDEA. The options available to parents and school districts under IDEA are arranged from less formal to more formal:






Mediation is a process of facilitated negotiation between parents and the school. It is a confidential process that allows parties to resolve disputes without a formal due process hearing.


The mediator is a trained, impartial facilitator who helps school staff and parents resolve their disagreement in an informal setting. The mediator facilitates discussion, encourages participants to identify and clarify areas of agreement and disagreement, and helps them generate and evaluate options for a mutually agreeable solution.


The goal in mediation, with the assistance of the mediator, is for the school staff and parents to integrate these options into a workable solution that is written into a legally binding agreement. The agreement is then used to execute the agreed upon services for the student.


green_exclamation[New] IDEA 2004 requires that:


  • Mediation is available whether or not a due process hearing is requested

  • Mediation must be conducted by a qualified and impartial mediator. Each state must maintain a list of qualified mediators, assign a mediator to a case on a random basis and bear the cost of the mediation process.

  • Mediation discussions are kept confidential and may not be used as evidence in any subsequent due process hearing or civil proceeding.

  • When a resolution is reached, the parties execute a legally binding agreement that is enforceable in a district court. The agreement is binding as soon as it is executed.

  • The mediation agreement must include the following:

    • A description of the agreement

    • A statement that all discussions that occurred during the mediation process are kept confidential and may not be used as evidence in any due process hearing or civil proceeding that occurs later

    • Signatures of both the parent and a representative of the school district who has legally binding authority

    • A statement that the agreement is enforceable in state or federal district court.


When successful, mediation can help avoid a due process hearing or other more adversarial procedures.


Your state department of education should have information on mediation, including how to make a request for mediation. Contact your Parent Training and Information Center (PTI) or state education department for more information.