Two Stories of How An Impartial Education Liaison Can Help with Special Education Conflicts

by | Jul 11, 2022 | Advocacy and Legal, Chinese, Education, Resource, Spanish

Excerpt from How an Impartial Education Liaison Service Helps Education Leaders Effectively Manage Special Education-Related Conflict By Rhea Settles, Ed.D., M.NCRP and Odilla Sidime, J.D. published in Journal for Leadership and Instruction, Fall 2021

Case Study: DJ

Before Impartial Education Liaison Engaged as a Facilitator and Third-Party Consultant
DJ was a musically gifted 11-year-old Latino male with autism and some physical limitations. His mother, Ms. E believed in his potential and continually advocated for her son’s educational entitlements. In this instance, Ms. E requested that DJ be retained in the same 5th class so he could achieve specific learning goals, improve his executive functioning and self-advocacy skills.
However, the School Principal Ms. N believed DJ would never meet grade-level standards or earn a diploma; so, she decided to promote DJ to middle school with his peers. Ms. E appealed the principal’s decision to the assistant superintendent only to be disappointed when he sided with Ms. N. In response, Ms. E filed a due process complaint but the district refused to budge on the issue of retention. Eventually, Ms. E gave in and DJ was promoted.

Unfortunately, conflict between Ms. E and school agents reoccurred during DJ’s first year in middle school. Ms. E used her health insurance to fund bathroom support services at no cost to the district; then asked Special Education Supervisor Mr. L to permit the service provider to work with DJ at the school site. Although Mr. L professed to care about the students, he expressed a preference for limiting services. So, without discussing the issue with Ms. E and at the advice of the district’s legal department, Mr. L denied the request. Upset by the denial, Ms. E gave Mr. L a piece of her mind. In response and despite being the assigned special education supervisor, Mr. L ceased interaction with Ms. E because he “felt bullied” and did not wish to have any further contact with her.

Because she had been on IEP teams that had success with Impartial Education Liaisons, another special education supervisor suggested the IEP team consult an Impartial Education Liaison. Ms. E, Mr. L and the other IEP team members decided to give it a try.

After Impartial Education Liaison Engaged as a Facilitator and Third-Party Conflict Consultant
The Impartial Education Liaison unpacked and mapped the conflict, identified communication gaps including cultural competency issues and perceived threats that were impeding collaboration between Ms. E and school agents. The Impartial Education Liaison also furnished communication coaching to help Ms. E see how her word-choice was often unclear and tone could be considered offensive which caused the school agents to reject her message.
The Impartial Education Liaison helped Mr. L understand how failing to effectively communicate with parents or involve them in decision-making could be perceived as arbitrary and inconsiderate. In addition, the Impartial Education Liaison helped the IEP team develop a partnership plan for future engagements about DJ’s IEP. Because the conflict had built up over multiple years, trust was eroded and communication was significantly impaired, the IEP team agreed to use an Impartial Education Liaison to consult on DJ’s IEP process and facilitate future IEP meetings.

Case Study: Student H

Before Impartial Education Liaison Engaged as a Mediator
Student H was a middle-school-aged Black girl with developmental delays and a seizure disorder that impacted her ability to access learning.

She was placed in a mild-moderate special education day class. Conflict between H’s family and school agents started when she was in the 5th grade and resulted in the filing of two due process complaints.

After over two years in litigation and tens of-thousands of dollars spent, the parties finally settled. However, the damaged relationship between H’s family and school agents continued to be plagued by ineffective communication, lack of faith and different views about the value of other’s input. H’s family, led by her grandmother, believed the school agents were not complying with H’s IEP or the settlement agreement which included a safety plan that required H be supported by a medically trained paraprofessional, escorted to the bathroom, seated on the other side of the classroom from the male students who had harassed her previously and the family received weekly progress reports and timely notification about H’s medical incidents.

H’s Special Education Teacher/Case Manager Miss B stated she was doing her best to meet H’s needs. Miss B recognized that as a first-year teacher she was still learning about special education rules and procedures. She admitted “still figuring out how to do everything in the IEP” and being unaware of the settlement agreement and safety plan.

Miss B also reported feeling intimidated by the grandmother’s impromptu classroom visits. Due to prior heated engagements, the school principal refused to have any contact with H’s family and assigned the newly hired Assistant Principal Ms. N to the case. Ms. N explained that her role was limited to supporting Miss B during IEP meetings or at her request; so, she did not “know the specifics” of H’s IEP and did not know about the settlement agreement and safety plan until the family became vocal about certain violations.

The Special Education Supervisor Mr. L who had been an assistant principal the prior year and had no experience in special education, admitted he had never reviewed the settlement agreement or safety plan and had very little knowledge about the family-school conflict because he generally took a hands-off approach to school site issues. Nevertheless, Mr. L stated his belief that H’s family was devaluing the efforts and commitment of the school staff and administrators.

After Impartial Education Liaison Engaged as a Mediator
After more than two years of escalating conflict, the IEP team contracted an Impartial Education Liaison to assist with addressing the ongoing conflict amongst them. During initial case development, the Impartial Education Liaison invested more than thirty hours interviewing family members, school agents and related service providers; reviewing documents and mapping out the conflict before convening the two mediated sessions. The relationship between the family and school agents was beleaguered by miscommunication, resource constraints, distrust, inadequate problem-solving skills and disparate opinions about H’s education needs (Lake & Billingsley, 2000).

But during just four hours mediated by an Impartial Education Liaison, the parties resolved all pending issues. Given a lack of faith due to past implementation problems and severe relationship damage, the IEP team agreed to have an Impartial Education Liaison continue to provide third party consultation to manage future conflict and IEP facilitation to effectively address escalating conflict.

Read the continuation of this research paper at How an Impartial Education Liaison Service Helps Education Leaders Effectively Manage Special Education-Related Conflict By Rhea Settles, Ed.D., M.NCRP and Odilla Sidime, J.D. published in Journal for Leadership and Instruction, Fall 2021

What does this mean for caregivers of students in SFUSD?

Did you know our district has free impartial education mediation available to family? If your IEP team is experiencing conflict they cannot solve, please contact Adriana Aro, Alternative Dispute Resolution Program Manager, at [email protected] You can learn more about Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) at or in these presentation slides from an ADR Workshop at Support for Families.

Click here to see the presentation