Education Discrimination - Disability
Parents' Emotional Fight Against School District
The Challenge. A seriously ill boy needed accommodations from his public school due to effects of the disease and treatment on his behavior. Seeking damages in the mid-six figures, his parents filed suit under various federal statutes claiming the school district had imposed harsh and destructive discipline, culminating in an incident which devastated the boy and made him unable to return to school.
Overcoming the Challenge. More than a year later, the relationship between Parents and the District was so frayed that I met in separate rooms to “warm things up a bit.” During the initial private session with Parents, Mother expressed anger that the District did not take her seriously. To help Mother feel “heard” by the district, I prepared her to avoid rehashing accusations and instead to share insights that would be a constructive.
I then spent time in the District’s room to hear its side of the story from attorneys, a board member and an administrator. Despite feeling that the parents had demonized them in the past, the District’s contingent agreed to listen respectfully in a joint session with Parents.
Throughout the day, my primary role in the District’s room was to collaborate with them about how to use their authority from the School Board in a manner most conducive to making sustained progress. In Parents’ room, I focused on working with counsel to keep Parents engaged. Initially, there was a risk that Parents would react to the District’s early moves by giving up on the process. We were able to keep them from losing hope by clarifying that these proposals did not reflect the District’s valuation of their claims, but rather was a reaction to how high Parents were.
I admired Mom for being a great advocate for her son, so I made a point to tell her that. I felt that we connected as mothers, and this acknowledgement helped to diffuse a lot of emotion.
Later in the afternoon, at counsel’s invitation, I shared with Parents my impressions of the case – that they had a strong case, and would likely win more times than not -- but their recovery could well be less than what was already on the table, and it would take years to get that money they could use now for their son.
Once the gap was narrowed sufficiently, Mom asked for my input again. I told her I understood part of her wanted to keep fighting, and part wanted to be able to focus on her son -- and she would have to decide which part was most important. Seeing it this way helped her make the choice to accept the District’s final offer.
The Result. After a long day of constructive negotiation, the case settled, allowing School District to avoid distraction from its mission and the risk of further litigation. The settlement also enabled the parents to recover a meaningful sum, giving them the resources to focus exclusively on their son’s care.