Dispute Resolution Center helps resolve issues for special education students

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Beth and Mark Kohler celebrate their son Cameron’s high school graduation in 2017.
– Photo courtesy of Beth Kohler, SEMS


Mediation is a valuable way for people to resolve a wide variety of disputes, including domestic, general/civil and school issues. According to Wayne County Dispute Resolution Center (WCDRC), mediation is also an effective, no-cost service for families and school districts involving disagreements about special education services.

Valerie Murphy-Goodrich, who schedules special education mediations for WCDRC, described how mediations are referred to the Center by Special Education Mediation Services (SEMS) in Lansing, which is operated through the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), Office of special education (OSE). SEMS processes requests through their intake department and coordinates requested services with well-trained mediators in 18 resolution centers located in Michigan serving all 83 counties. WCDRC schedules special education mediations for families and schools in Wayne County.

According to Cheryl Levine, SEMS program coordinator, disagreements typically center around students’ Individualized Education Programs, and how school districts meet the needs identified in them.

“Our goal is to provide a team-oriented and student-focused approach to resolving disagreements with SEMS trained, neutral mediators who help participants focus on key issues, have a voice and contribute ideas,” said Levine. “It’s also important that mediators be conversant in special education law.

Murphy-Goodrich, an experienced mediator with training in general/civil issues and restorative practices, has received SEMS specialized training in addition to its multi-component training for continuing education.

“SEMS is an outstanding resource and also provides facilitation to assist with any special education meetings or help in preparing participants for mediation,” said Murphy-Goodrich.

Perhaps no one understand the benefits of facilitation and mediation services better than Beth Kohler, SEMS Southeast Michigan outreach coordinator. She gives presentations about the services SEMS offers to a wide variety of organizations, churches, community groups, and schools throughout a twelve-county area, including Wayne County.

She frequently talks about her son Cameron, 21, who was born with Williams Syndrome, a rare developmental disorder.

“Because of our family values, we wanted our son to be in an inclusive school setting, which can be very complicated,” said Kohler. “While we had a good relationship with the schools, I recall several IEP meetings involving 10-12 people and lasting all day. I learned that with a mediator or facilitator, we could have worked through issues much more efficiently.”

Kohler added that SEMS helps to build trust and open lines of communication. Conversations in mediation are kept confidential and cannot be used in other court proceedings.

Levine shared that statewide over the life of the program, SEMS has an 80 percent success rate in resolving disputes and noted that in 2019, WCDRC reached agreement in 93 percent of its mediations.

“We are proud of the record our mediators have in resolving disputes and facilitating special education meetings,” said Siham Awada Jaafar, president of WCDRC board of directors. “It’s important that more people in Wayne County become aware of these valuable services that can save them time, money and worry in providing the best educational outcomes for students with disabilities.”

When in-person facilitations and mediations are not possible, SEMS and WCDRC are able to arrange phone or web-based meetings that accommodate all participants.

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