Help Negotiating Needs For Special-Ed Students

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 26, 2006

Five school systems are testing a new state program designed to help parents and educators avoid the conflict that sometimes makes it difficult to develop education plans for students with special needs.

The process of drafting an individual education program, or IEP -- a blueprint for what services and support a special education student needs to be successful -- often is contentious. Parents and educators sometimes disagree about what services a student needs.

But proponents of the Facilitated IEP Team Meeting Pilot Project hope that bringing to the table a neutral third party trained in conflict management can reduce tensions and make meetings more productive. Through the program, a parent or educator can bring in a facilitator, at no cost.

"Hopefully, we can avoid going to that extreme where parents and school systems get so locked into their point of view -- where the relationship is so damaged -- that nothing gets resolved," said Ed Wulkan, chief of the Complaint Investigation and Due Process Branch of the state's Division of Special Education. "If we get started early enough, we can get to the heart of problems so we can avoid a lot of the more expensive and more contentious ways of conflict resolution."

The school systems in Montgomery, Prince George's, Anne Arundel, Washington and Baltimore counties are participating. The Howard County school system is in the process of joining. The project began in the spring, and organizers are hoping to expand it this school year.

Maryland has joined a handful of states, including Delaware, that are experimenting with conflict resolution specialists to help make meetings between parents and educators less difficult, said Lorig Charkoudian, executive director of Community Mediation Maryland, which is working with the state and the school systems on the program.

The program is funded by a $15,000 grant from the state judiciary's Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office.

"Having someone who's just focused on the communication so that people are hearing each other, getting a chance to speak and really understanding what everyone at the table is saying is important," Charkoudian said. "Lack of communication in an IEP meeting can escalate into a much bigger conflict."

The reception among school officials has been positive.

"We think anything that will increase communication with parents and result in consensus decision making is a good thing," said Alison Steinfels, supervisor in the Montgomery school system for the special education Equity Assurance and Compliance Unit. "We support the use of it."

Steinfels said that during the last school year, Montgomery initially offered the program at three schools: Lucy V. Barnsley Elementary, Robert Frost Middle and Northwest High. This school year, officials plan to expand it throughout the system.

In Prince George's, the program is offered systemwide and has been used in at least a half-dozen meetings.

Schools chief John E. Deasy said in a written statement: "We are excited by the potential for enhanced dialog and positive working relationships with parents, a situation that greatly benefits all students."

Mike McLaughlin, the parent of a special education student in Prince George's, has used the service. Although he had not had difficulty in developing a plan for his child, he wanted to see how the service worked.

"If nothing else, it helps keep people on topic," he said. "Just to be able to come in with an agenda is useful. Sometimes, parents may have certain things they want to talk about, but because conversation drifts off, they never get to. Having a facilitator helps make the time more efficient."

Charkoudian, of Community Mediation Maryland, said that facilitators have participated in about 30 meetings and that the feedback has generally been positive.

To learn more about the program, parents can contact their school system or Community Mediation Maryland, at 410-349-0080.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company