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Ombudsman for Special Education?


I was curious when I started reading this Dallas Morning News article about the trend of school districts using an ombudsman, which is a public official appointed to investigate citizens' complaints against government agencies or officials. I just got a report (pdf) from Project Forum, a project of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, on alternative ways to resolve disputes between school districts and parents of special education students. It left me wondering if an ombudsman could nip problems in the bud before they lead to due-process hearings.

After finishing the story, though, I'm skeptical. If I were a parent with a concern about my child's education, I would want to speak to someone with some actual power to resolve my issue, and I'd want them to work fast. Possible school closures and cheerleading tryouts (two issues fielded by ombudsmen in the article) are important, but they're not nearly as complex as an individualized education program. And the parents quoted in the story don't sound particularly thrilled with their experience.

However, the Project Forum report says that some states do use "dispute resolution case managers." I wonder if any readers have had experience with an ombudsman-like official in the special education arena? Is such a position a worthwhile idea, or wasted money?


I have had a go or two at mediation as an alternative to Due Process. It leaves me a little cold. The mediation process is geared toward arriving at an agreement and therefore mediators are not required to be conversant with such things are minimum requirements under the law. I found this to be a little un-nerving and really played to the hand of the district. In my second go around (different year, different issue) I brought an attorney (first time only the district was represented), and we did not arrive at a resolution. We did come to an understanding prior to going forward with due process however--I guess they were not feeling so secure that they could go forward in a more "legal" setting. So--an Ombudsperson (hired by whom--the district? the state?) won't likely be a better experience, I am guessing.

Where I do see some possibility (although it has not yet reached my district) is some pilots in facilitated IEP meetings. This one is state supported, and as the compliance people, I would expect them to make decisions within the context of what is legally permissible. My uneducated guess is that the quality of IEP meetings (and therefore, IEPs) varies widely, depending on the education and advocacy of the parents on the one hand and the amount of supervision and professional development from the district on the other. I have heard about experiences all the way from "come in and sign your child's IEP," to those where they really talk about how to help the child learn and grow (I think heard about that once). In any case, an uninvolved third party to record, problem-solve, clarify, critique, all that, would seem like a good way to forestall some of the disputes that go to due process.

I think there is an enormous need for mediators outside of the special ed/general ed systems. I agree that ombudsmen need to be involved with the meaty issues of IEP's, and not just the superficial ones that are less controversial and less important. Alarmingly, our current system often ostracizes educators and parents who support the whole child and family system. This is a significant problem, and one that ombudsmen, acting from their more neutral outside position, may be better able to make headway.

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