Date Published: May 31, 2004
UCSB Ph.D. in Education
Mueller, Tracy G.

Abstract: "Conflict between parents of children with disabilities and school districts has become a national topic of concern. Parents and districts are continuing to rely on due process hearings to resolve conflict. This practice is emotionally and financially exhausting, and leaves no room for collaboration. Because the relationship between parents and school members is so important to a child’s education, this dilemma is worrisome.


Using a multiple case study method, this study explored two school districts that implemented a systems change to institute a lower level of parent-school conflict that reduced reliance on hearings or mediation. Interviews, observations and document analysis findings indicated leadership at both districts contributed to the changes and ultimately the institutionalization of a proactive system. Nine categories were identified as indicators of system practices that promote positive parent-school relations. These include 1) Communication, 2) Trust, 3) Professional development and Parent education, 4) Support, 5) Partnership, 6) Resource creativity, 7) Educational services, 8) Legal practices, and 9) Alternative dispute resolution. 


This study illustrates the importance of effective leadership and proactive systems practices. Findings indicate conflict between parents and school districts can be resolved without having to go to exhaustive litigation battles. Additionally, this study shows the potential for moving a district from a litigious climate to one that fosters the parent-school partnership. Relevant literature on special education law, parent-school relations, conflict prevention, alternative dispute resolution, and leadership will be presented and discussed."


Conclusion: "This study indicates there is hope for school districts to improve their relations with parents, decrease their hearing rates, and improve their overall system. Given the important role leadership played in these two districts, it appears administrators should be coached and trained in these effective parent-school practices. This study also identified nine categorical system indicators of positive parent-school relations. These practices could assist leaders with restructuring their systems. Findings support the notion that one specific action or change may not be enough to improve parent-school relations. Rather, there is clearly a need for a larger multi-element systems change.


These two school districts illustrate a dramatic “before and after” picture. Parents who once felt the only way to resolve an issue was through a due process hearing are now partners with the district. These parents continue to contribute to the district’s success. There is no longer an image of the parents and district members taking opposite sides. Such stories indicate hope for the many other districts that face contention with angry parents and strained staff. Although due process procedures are available as rights under IDEA, it is clear that there are ways to resolve disputes without having to go through such an exhaustive process. The ultimate goal in avoiding these hearings is to maintain the parent-school relationship. This study shows that districts can structure their systems in a way that fosters the parent-school partnership so that in the end everyone is satisfied, especially the child." (pp.252-253)