Formal Complaint & Mediation Processes Explained

As discussed in my previous post we filed a Formal Complaint against our school system. This post will give an overview of what I learned about the complaint and mediation processes.

In early September, I downloaded the “formal complaint form” from our state’s education website. The document was four pages and asked a series of questions about the issues, and how we believed they could be resolved.  The Formal Complaint only covered issues that occurred within a 1-year time period. Near the bottom of the form, there was a question asking if we would be willing to mediate?  I selected “yes” thinking that I wanted to do everything possible to come to a resolution for my son. I submitted the complaint along with 20 pages of detailed records outlining the issues along with two recommendations for resolution.  Then I waited.

What I didn’t understand at the time of selecting “Yes” to mediation is that the investigative process and the mediation process run concurrently. Meaning, I’d be working with the investigator and the mediator at the same time. I also didn’t realize that they do not share information because they are two very separate, yet concurrent processes. And I had no idea that if we mediated an agreement I’d be required to withdraw the Formal Complaint – rendering all the work that I had done with the investigator “useless.”  This is all very important to understand before embarking on this journey.

Several days after submitting the complaint via certified mail, I received a document from our local county, outlining the rules and regulations of the process.  About 2 weeks after that, I received confirmation from the State that my complaint had been deemed “valid” and had been assigned to an investigator. I was told that I’d receive a formal response to our complaint from the local school district within 10 days — it was much longer.

Communication with the investigator was fluid and ongoing. She’d ask a question and I’d find my documentation, scan it and email it to her as a PDF. I spent the better part of a week scanning and emailing documents to help prove our case.  When we finally received the school’s formal response it was like a punch to the gut and it took me several days to process it and recover. Ultimately, their response fueled my fire.

About a week after starting work with the investigator, I began receiving calls from the mediator who had been assigned to our case. Due to my anger over the school’s response, I really didn’t think mediation was a viable option. However, the mediator’s calm demeanor, combined with an internal voice saying “trust the process” kept me going.

Thankfully, parents of blind students began to reach out to me from across Georgia and the US. They sent articles, they called, they wrote and they cheered me on. I got a ton of good advice and some serious reality checks. One mom listened to me talk about my son’s issues and how these issues were just a snapshot of the larger issues facing all VI kids in our state and she replied, “You can’t fix all that right now. You have to just let that go and focus on what’s best for your child.”   If you are like me, you want to fight the good fight and fix things for all those kids who don’t have parents who are able to fight for them.  But, she was right, and her advice helped me re-focus and succinctly determine what we were willing to accept. I’ve come to understand that each time a parent fights this battle we help all VI kids simply by adding our voices and experiences to the conversation.

I barely slept the night before mediation and was plagued by terrible and confusing dreams. In the morning, after several cups of coffee, I realized that I felt very prepared. Facing mediation with a support team really helped. Our team consisted of five people: myself, my son, my husband, the dad of a younger VI student in our district and a local volunteer advocate. No attorneys were present. The mediator sat at the head of the table and the majority of my son’s IEP team was in attendance on behalf of the school.

I felt prepared and strong in my negotiating tactics because I was confident that I had a solid Formal Complaint on the table. And, I believed that if no agreement was reached today, the investigator would judge our school to be non-compliant. A non-complaint verdict would trigger a corrective action plan (CAP) which would be overseen by the state.  The only thing that concerned me about that outcome is that I had no control over the CAP and while I had thoroughly documented our complaint I had no idea how the state would address the problems.

The mediation began with a brief overview of the process and the mediator asked all participants to sign a confidentiality agreement. Next, I read a prepared statement which outlined the issues in order of priority and our recommendations. Then, the school gave a brief statement. Following opening statements, the mediator separated us into different rooms to begin negotiations. The mediator went back and forth between our groups to negotiate terms.  We were able to take breaks when necessary. When an agreement was finally reached we came back together to review the wording and to sign off on the completed document.

As outlined in my last post, the mediation was 8-hours long and we did eventually hash out an agreement. My fear about continuing to be the only ones holding the school district accountable was relieved by building safeguards into the agreement.  We also rest assured that if the district fails to implement the plan as outlined, we can file another complaint (without mediation) or we can take the agreement directly to state or federal court.

My son has been back at school for 4 days and reports that he hasn’t been treated any differently. Thankfully, with very few exceptions, the individuals on his team and his teachers have always treated him just like all the other students. Our issues were mostly process related and hopefully, the plan we put in place will work.

My next post will be about document organization. I will share what worked for me and also provide a list of resources that I found to be very helpful.

If you have gone through this process before, or if you are in the middle of it now, please leave questions or comments below. Thank you for reading.

Related posts:
The Advocacy Tightrope
Special Education Mediation Experience
Preparing for Battle: Support & Organization

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