AMONG THE MORE difficult tasks of school administrators is putting into practice the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. Under that cumbersome title reposes a law with an admirable purpose: to guarantee to every handicapped child the right to "a free, appropriate public education," provided, if possible, in regular classes. The goal is not easily achieved. Each of these children has special requirements, each set of parents has expectations and demands, and each school district must take into account resources that are finite and pressures from other parts of the community it serves.
The federal law requires that an "individual educational program" be devised for each child in cooperation with his parents. When agreement on a plan cannot be reached, parties have the right to a due- process hearing, an appeal to the state education agency and, ultimately, to a suit in federal court. It is not exactly surprising that this process is, in addition to being time-comsuming, confrontational and emotionally exhausting, very expensive. Even parents who successfully bring suit are not entitled to reimbursement of attorneys' fees.
Mediation is a far better way to settle these conflicts, and it is now being used in 33 states. Two Washington attorneys have just completed a study of such special-education mediation in Massachusetts, which has had almost 10 years' experience, and California, whose more recent program handles a high volume of cases. In both states, parties disagreeing on an individual education program are offered mediation before going through the appeals process. Parents may come to the informal session with or without an advocate, and school officials and teachers are present to discuss the child's case and what is available to help him. Professional mediators come from a variety of backrounds -- Massachusetts has, among others, a former priest, a social worker and a prison official. The average session takes only a few hours, during which the mediator listens to all parties and consults with them separately and together. In Massachusetts, 51 percent of all cases filed for appeal were settled by mediation; in California, the most recent figure was 68 percent.
The informal resolution of disputes involving the deepest emotions and special needs of families with handicapped children is far preferable to the rigors of a legal battle. Mediation is the right tool. It should be encouraged.