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Picking Your Battles

Recently I received a call from a frantic, newly appointed supervisor of transportation, who was overwhelmed by excessive calls from a parent of a child with disabilities.

The caller described a sequence of unreasonable demands and threats that would have been relentless, even for a seasoned transportation supervisor. No matter how hard this individual tried to work with the displeased parent, the parent was never satisfied.

After an extensive period of listening to the newly appointed supervisor, I made several suggestions that have worked for me over the years, when working with a parent who wanted to battle despite “best efforts” to resolve an issue or concern.

Set Limits

Indicate to the parent on the phone that you are available to discuss a defined issue(s) for 10 minutes. If the issue(s) cannot be resolved, request the issue(s) be put into writing by the parent for your review and review by other appropriate administrators. If the issue is resolved, send a short confirmation defining the agreement is reached. It is best when this is sent out within a short period after the agreement is reached. What is most important is not getting adversarial and being sure to end the conversation on a respectful note. Leave a conversation feeling good that you acted in a professional manner. Don’t forget to take notes that include the date and time of the conversation.

Meet with Parent in Person

Offer to meet with the parent in person, and include other appropriate individuals to meet at a mutually agreeable time. All individuals at the meeting should be known to both parties. Prior to meeting with the parent request a list of issues to be discussed. The parent’s issue(s) should serve as the meeting agenda. Make sure at the beginning of the meeting everyone is introduced. The time allotted for the meeting should be known at the beginning of the meeting. I recommend that the parent be provided the opportunity to speak first. Take a firm but friendly approach to facilitating the meeting. Don’t forget to review the purpose of the meeting. Before closing the meeting, set time aside to give everyone a short period to talk and summarize the results of the meeting.

Follow Approved Policies

Don’t depart from the school district’s approved policies and procedures to get an overbearing parent off your back. While the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) require that decisions be made on a case-by-case basis, make sure that decisions are reached by the appropriate persons. It is essential to know who is responsible for each decision. When in doubt, raise the question with appropriate school system personnel. Don’t fall into the trap of making a decision to eliminate tension that has not been approved by the Office of School Superintendent, School Board or other offices or jurisdiction in authority.

In summary, when all is said and done, remember that most parents and students are greatly appreciative of the transportation services received. I always recommend terminating an inappropriate adversarial conversation that is going nowhere but downhill by saying, “I want to think about what you are saying. May I have your number so that I can call back as soon as I have had time to consider the information presented.”

I can recall a parent demanding that it is the responsibility of the school district to come into the house and bring their child’s wheelchair to curbside prior to being loaded onto the school bus. After listening to excessive abuse for approximately three minutes, I responded, “I am so sorry I cannot locate this requirement in federal or state statute or regulation, but if you have a copy of such a requirement in writing I am more than happy to honor it.” I never again heard from that parent.

For years, I have enjoyed the challenge of not losing my cool. When someone has threatened to report me to a higher authority, I always offer to provide my supervisor’s phone number. The next thing I do is to inform my supervisor that she may receive a call from a disgruntled individual. This strategy has worked to calm things down.

My final recommendation is that under the worst of circumstances, maintain your best communication skills. Remember, when the words are in your mouth you are still in control.


Linda is the branch chief of the Maryland State Department of Education’s Division of Special Education/Early Intervention Services, Community and Interagency Services Branch.


Reprinted from the February 2003 edition of School Transportation News. All rights reserved.

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