Virginia's Judicial System

Introducing Virginia Special Education Mediation Service

The purpose of the Virginia SSEMS program is to provide parents and school administrators assistance in negotiating any issue around the identification, provision of services or placement of a child thought to need special education services, specialized instruction, or reasonable accommodations to benefit from education. The program is designed to quickly respond to joint requests made by parents and school administrators for assistance.

In 1998, eight Virginia mediators were selected by the Virginia Department of Education and trained to work with parents and schools on issues concerning special educational services provided by public schools to students. The first year, there were 59 cases. In 2002, there were 104. The mediators who have been with the program since its inception in September 1999 include Terri Colby Barr, Jerryanne Bier, Charles Broadfield, Jerry Minskoff, Regina Olchowski , Nancy Siford, Richard Vacca and Claiborne Winborne. The mediators work in a framework defined by federal and state laws and regulations, case law, and effective educational methodology. They are convened twice a year for training in these areas, along with discussion on considerations in mediating special education disputes. Karen Donegan Salter, Arthur Stewart, and Joanne DeSiato provide consultation for the program, along with guests who address specific issues. The mediators are evaluated annually.

Several elements make this form of mediation unique. It is carried out within a complex regulatory framework. Since 1975, federal law has required that the planning for individual students who need support to benefit from their education be developed through consensus among a team composed of parents and educators. These parties have access to mediation or a due process hearing to resolve issues that might arise in the consensual planning process. Students currently identified as needing specialized instruction or other modifications are eligible for services until graduation from high school or the twenty-second birthday. This creates a history of negotiations between parties, which may influence subsequent negotiations and events.

Kneeling: Charles Broadfield. Standing, left to right: Jerry Minskoff,
Karen Donegan Salter, Terri Colby Barr, Claiborne Winborne, Jerryanne Bier,
Nancy Siford, Art Stewart, Regina Olchowski, Dick Vacca

The mediators who work in other venues report that differences between people in special education contexts are more likely to be strongly emotional than in many other assisted negotiations. The issues involve high stakes because a student's growth and development is in question. People's belief systems are engaged in a larger way than they are in contests where identity does not figure so strongly. Consequent to belief and identity figuring into the process, the temptation to see only one acceptable outcome, one right way of doing things, often visits the parties. For the same reasons, the issues become personalized fairly early.

The influences on individual decision-makers are complex. An administrator may have to resolve conflicts between his or her own values and professional opinion, what staff members feel is the right decision, conflicting views of what a student needs, competing expert opinions, the view of what the law requires, preferences presented by parents, the history of the negotiations, resources available to support changed circumstances, and the individual's instinct and judgement about a practical and supportable outcome.

A parent may have to sort through different ideas offered by people who work with the child, the proper and productive stance as his or her son's advocate, the attainability of her wishes and preferences regarding the student's programming, credible sources of information about the child's progress in a given program, competing professional opinions, what the student prefers, the merit of the offer the school is making, advice given by family, friends, neighbors and advocates, the negotiating history.

The kinds of issues that may arise include eligibility for services, the categorical lens through which a student's needs for support are viewed, sufficiency of services, the progress of the student's learning, the order of priority of the student's needs, and the advisability of reducing or completing special education support services.

Searching for common ground and establishing a productive dialogue among experts who have tested the student or provided services may shape part of the mediator's task. Sometimes people have different perceptions of the student and what he or she needs, based on the context in which they have observed or tested the individual and the training and beliefs which inform their practices.

Mediators are working among individual and institutional interests in an assisted negotiation. Multiple parties are present at the mediation conference. This provides opportunities for the mediator to assist the intramural negotiations by focusing attention on the speakers offering the best new thinking.

The chief task at this point for the State Special Education Mediation Service lies in expanding public awareness of the program. It is an effective, low-cost and efficient way of resolving differences among team members who plan services for students. It can directly address relationship issues, a hostage taken by continued conflict.

For more information about the program, you may contact Art Stewart at 804-786-0711 or by e-mail at [email protected].

The department maintains descriptive information at its website:
path: site index>special education and student services>student services>mediation.

Article submitted by Arthur K. Stuart
Art was trained as a mediator by the American Arbitration Association in 1972 and has been a full-time mediator and trainer since 1979. From 1985 to 1998, he coordinated the mediation program for the Massachusetts Department of Education. He has participated in the learnings of mediators and negotiators as a trainer in 19 states and Canada. Stewart served as President of the Massachusetts Association of Mediators and Mediation Programs from 1987 to 1992. A resident of Richmond, he holds an unused license to catch fish in the James River.

This page last modified: March 26, 2003