Strategies for Solving School Challenges

IEP meeting

This article was contributed by Katie Holler, an ASNC Autism Resource Specialist in the Eastern Region and mom to five daughters, four of whom have autism.

Any parent can attest to facing difficulty at one time or another with their student’s IEP (Individualized Education Program). Perhaps you have disagreed with the other members of the IEP team or school staff. Or you might have questioned the team’s decision to increase, decrease, or exit your child from special education services. Diplomacy, relationship-building, and forgiveness are important in these situations. Remember, you and the school staff are bound together for as long as your child attends school.

Before difficulties arise, try to build positive relationships with the school staff. Never underestimate the positive impact of frequent, polite, and friendly interactions. I find that offering compliments to school staff when appropriate can help to build a positive relationship, which is helpful if you ever do disagree. Think about the times you are approached with corrective criticism: How do you respond when the criticism comes from a valued and trusted source? You might be willing to consider the concerns. But if the criticism comes from an individual who is always finding fault, your reaction might be different.

If you do have concerns, you can use emails, letters, phone calls, and meetings with school staff as well as Central Office EC staff to begin the task of cooperative problem-solving. A conversation about a challenge or difficulty need not be adversarial. Begin a difficult conversation by asking for more information or clarification. Multiple state and federal policies govern services for children with disabilities, so it is impossible for parents to know and understand all of these policies.

Ways to Resolve Conflicts

Despite our best efforts at diplomacy, conflicts may arise that cannot be resolved through talking with the school staff. Some parents’ first response might be to consider employing an attorney to address and resolve the issue. I caution parents to think again about “pressing the panic button” and calling an attorney. Once an attorney becomes involved, the school will limit communication with the parent regarding that specific issue. The school’s attorney will discuss the specific issue of dispute with the parent’s attorney. The school will continue to communicate with the parent but no longer about the issue involving the attorney. Calling an attorney may be best as a last resort when all informal and formal attempts at dispute resolution fail.

One way you can enlist assistance and support in communicating your concerns to the school staff is to contact the Autism Society of North Carolina. Our Autism Resource Specialists specialize in working with parents and schools at resolving and maintaining a positive working relationship. Autism Resource Specialists are all mothers of children with autism, and have years of personal and professional experience related to IEPs and resolving school-related issues. To find the Autism Resource Specialist in your area, click here.

If you cannot resolve a conflict with school staff, you can look for help from the Exceptional Children’s Division of the NC Department of Public Instruction, which oversees public school systems and enforces the state and federal protections granted to a child who has been identified with a disability. The Procedural Safeguards Manual, which parents receive annually, details your rights. It is sometimes referred to as the “Parents’ Rights Manual.” I have to smile each year when I receive the four copies for each of my daughters at their annual reviews. I will often remark to staff that I have enough of these manuals to wallpaper a room or two in my home. All kidding aside, this manual is very important. It directs parents on how to file for the following dispute resolution actions:

  • Informal Dispute Resolution/Facilitated IEP Meetings
  • Formal Dispute Resolution/Written Complaint
  • Formal Dispute Resolution through Mediation
  • Formal Dispute Resolution through a Due Process Hearing

Simply contacting the Department of Public Instruction’s EC Dispute Resolution Specialists does not constitute filing a formal complaint. I mention this because in recent months, some parents have elected to call and complain instead of filing a formal complaint. If a Dispute Resolution Specialist receives a call from a parent, they will contact the school system’s EC Director and explain the parent’s concern. This may or may not resolve the issue. But please remember, I strongly encourage you to exhaust all attempts to resolve issues and concerns before making a complaint against a school.

Seeking DPI Help

Formal Dispute Resolution/Written Complaint: Let’s begin with the formal definition of a State Complaint as written in the Procedural Safeguards Manual. “State Complaint – A state complaint is a signed written statement that alleges a school or local education agency is not following special education law and regulations found in IDEA, Article 9 of section 115 C of the NC General Statutes. This statement is a formal request for the EC Division to investigate issues of non-compliance.” It must include:

  • A statement that the LEA or other public agency has violated federal and state policies
  • FACTS on which the statement is based
  • The signature and contact information for the person filing the complaint. It cannot be anonymous.
  • Information about the child for whom the complaint is being filed: name, address, description of the problem, and facts related to the problem
  • A proposed resolution to the problem

Upon receiving the complaint, the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) will respond within 20 days. DPI will review the information, investigate, and request additional information from the school.  DPI will render a decision within 60 days of the complaint filing. To learn more about filing a formal state complaint, click here.

Remember, a state complaint alleges that the school is not following federal and state law, not just that you disagree with the school staff’s approach.

Informal Dispute Resolution/Facilitated IEP Meetings: If you want assistance from the DPI in meeting with the IEP team, you can request a Facilitated IEP Meeting. This free service helps to produce a positive and productive meeting during which the school staff and the parent are given equal time to verbalize their concern. To submit a formal request for a Facilitated IEP Meeting, you will need to document your attempts at meeting with the school and why you are requesting a facilitator. For more information, click here.

Formal Dispute Resolution through Mediation: If you disagree with a school’s decision, you can also request Formal Dispute Resolution through Mediation. Mediation provides an impartial individual with experience in mediation and working with schools and families to resolve issues outside of the courtroom. Mediation will usually produce a binding legal agreement between parent and school that clarifies the outcome of a situation or dispute. This is also a free service through DPI. For more information about requesting Mediation, click here.

Formal Dispute Resolution through a Due Process Hearing: If these processes and procedures are not effective and the parent wishes to hire an attorney, they can submit a Due Process Petition. When a parent elects this process, the attorney will be handle all of the communication and problem-solving with the school. The parent and student are now officially represented via an attorney. For more information about Due Process, click here.

Not every situation requires an approach detailed in this manual. As a parent of children with autism and as a professional serving parents with children on the spectrum, I strongly encourage a proactive, positive, and diplomatic approach with any and all communications with a school and school staff.

For more information on IEPs, see the Autism Society of North Carolina’s toolkits.

Katie Holler can be reached at 252-756-1316 or



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