- Poway Unified School District, a 35,000-student school system near San Diego, is crediting intentional changes to policies and procedures — as well as improved district-family relationships — for declines in special education litigation against the district and increases in early efforts to resolve disputes, according to district leaders who spoke during a webinar hosted by The Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education.
- Between the 2017-18 and 2021-22 school years, the district had a 59% decrease in due process cases, an 11% decrease in litigation settlement costs and a 22% decrease in attorney fees, even as the district saw a 25% increase in the number of students qualifying for special education services, said Greg Mizel, associate superintendent of student support services.
- The district's intention wasn't to eliminate conflict entirely but to help school staff and parents navigate disagreement productively and collaboratively, Mizel said. "We all know, right, who loses the most when the adults can't agree. It's the child. In every context when conflict is mismanaged, it breaks the relationship," he said.
Michelle O'Connor-Ratcliff, a district school board member and parent, said the district's "toxic," "hostile" and "distrustful" relationship between parents and educators sparked her desire to run for a school board seat eight years ago. "Special education was the land of 'No,' and there was comfort in the inertia," O'Connor-Ratcliff said.
Efforts to reform didn't last until Mizel joined the district in 2017, O'Connor-Ratcliff said. In the 2018-18 school year, there were 44 due process cases and $1 million in due process settlement costs and $407,981.50 in attorney fees.
Mizel and others in the district began making improvements to special education procedures, such as increasing access to student screenings for learning challenges and verifying that those procedures were being followed. The district also increased professional development opportunities and availability of evidence-based curriculum.
Additionally, early and alternative dispute resolution activity increased with the addition of neutral program specialists who attended students' individualized education program meetings to help navigate disagreements, said Jodi Payne, the district’s director of family engagement, support and resolution.
Mizel said the district also prioritized relationships and shifted mindsets "from making it right versus being right."
District and school staff attended special education advisory committee meetings, offering to present on topics of interest to the committee and following up on concerns raised by attendees. "This effort went a long way towards restoring trust and credibility," Payne said.
Focusing on relationship-building at the school level was also a priority. The district solicited parents of students with disabilities familiar with the school to volunteer as Parent Ambassadors. These parents support those new to special education services, or parents of a student with disabilities new to the school, navigate resources at the school or district level, as well as voice concerns and find solutions.
Payne described how one parent ambassador at a school was dismayed that students with disabilities and their parents were left off of general education classroom notifications and certain school-wide activities such as a back-to-school event. The students also weren't included in the general education class photos and classroom directories, which limited their ability to receive invitations to birthday parties.
After improving efforts at inclusion, such as welcoming students with disabilities to school-wide and general education classroom events, the parent ambassador reported an increase in parent participation. Special education staff also felt more included in school-wide activities, Payne said.
By the 2021-22 school year, due process cases dropped to 18 and attorney fees decreased to $314,856.41. Due process settlement costs decreased to $894,623, but had been as low as $209,808 in 2020-21 and as high as $1.96 million in 2018-19, Mizel said.
Even during last school year, as the district worked through the challenges of the pandemic and without a waiver to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, staff were able to contain legal costs and minimize the district's legal exposure, he said.
"We can't predict the impact of a worldwide pandemic on our teams or reducing due process filings and litigation. We really can't. I mean, we're all hopeful right? The foundation we've laid the last few years will sustain us through this present moment, and well beyond. Our department is really trying to reasonably meet our students and their families where they're at," Mizel said.