"Informal Dispute Resolution" can refer to many different things in the context of special education cases. Many school districts may have their own informal dispute resolution ("IDR") processes, in which a parent can meet with or speak with someone about their disagreements without having to file for a due process hearing or go to a mediation. Even in the context of a due process case, there is an opportunity to "informally resolve" the issues between the parents and the district.
Definition of "Resolution Session"
A resolution session is a process by which parties meet without a neutral third party and attempt to resolve their dispute.
Rules / Statutory Basis
The Resolution Session and Informal Resolution Period were created in the 2004 changes to IDEA;
"Prior to the opportunity for an impartial due process hearing... the local educational agency shall convene a meeting with the parents and the relevant member or members of the IEP Team who have specific knowledge of the facts identified in the complaint
(i) within 15 days of receiving notice of the parents complaint;
(ii) which shall include a representative of the agency who has decision-making authority on behalf of such agency;
(iii) which may not include an attorney of the local educational agency unless the parent is accompanied by an attorney; and
(iv) where the parents of the child discuss their complaint, and the facts that form the basis of the complaint, and the local educational agency is provided the opportunity to resolve the complaint, unless the parents and the local educational agency agree in writing to waive such meeting or agree to use the mediation process in lieu of the resolution session"
20 U.S.C. section 1415(f)(1)(B)
Any agreement made in the resolution session must be in writing, is enforceable, and can be voided by either party within 3 business days of execution. 20 U.S.C. section 1415(f)(1)(B)(iii)&(iv).
What to Expect:
An informal resolution session is to be held within 15 days after parents filed for due process. The statute allows for a 30 day "resolution period" meaning that although the resolution session must occur within the first 15 days, the district has an opportunity to try to resolve the dispute within 30 days before the time period for the hearing and a decision commences. If a district files for due process against a parent an informal resolution session does not have to be held and the 30 day period does not toll.
A school district representative will most likely contact the parents prior to the deadline to schedule a resolution session (sometimes referred to as an "informal"). Parents are required to attend the resolution session, unless the parties both agree in writing to waive it. If the school district doesn't agree, and parents still refuse to participate, then all of the applicable timelines stop until parents agree to go to the informal.
Whether attorneys or advocates attend the resolution session with parents is a case-by-case determination. There are pros and cons of having and attorney or advocate there, but many parents feel that they would be easily bullied if they went alone. The law anticipated that attorneys would not be involved in this process, and therefore parents cannot get reimbursed for an attorney's time spent attending the resolution session.
A resolution session is sometimes convened with only the parents and a district representative, like a special education director. However, sometimes the school district will have many participants, including members of the IEP team.
Even if a district does not typically settle cases at this level, the informal resolution process can be helpful to the overall settlement negotiations in a case. Often, the fact that a "decision-maker" has been forced to immediately get involved in the case, to meet with the parents first-hand, and to familiarize themselves with the facts contained in the complaint, can be very effective. Sometimes, if a subsequent mediation is held, it may be much more productive because it is not the first time the parties meet, and the "decision-maker" will at least have already read the complaint.