Conflict and Continuing Relationship Between Schools and Parents or Children with Disabilities
David Engel Principal Investigator
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Law and culture shape interactions between people and groups in society. The relationships among various parties are pervaded by cultural images and social values that give form to perceptions of events, expectations of behavior, and definitions of acceptable and unacceptable conduct. Under certain circumstances social interactions are perceived as "normal"; under others they are perceived as problematic and conflictual. Dr. Engel examines the factors that lead people to interpret a set of experiences as conflictual or nonconflictual in order to better understand the emergence and transformation of conflict and the invocation of the law. The particular social arena for the research is the relationship between parents of children with physical disabilities and the schools and school districts that plan and implement educational programs for "handicapped" students. There are some important features of this setting for a study of the relationship between law, culture, and conflict; namely, the parties cannot "exit" from their dealings with one another since the relationship is mandated by law. Thus, the relationship is a continuing one rather than a one-time or intermittent social encounter. Also, it is distinct from the continuing relationships studied previously because it involves an individual and an institutional entity rather than two individuals, and it is characterized by vast disparities in resources and authority rather than involving parties of roughly equal power. Specifically, Dr. Engel examines the continuing interactions between parents and schools in terms of their cultural and legal context. Through a series of systematic interviews with parents over the course of a year, the project traces the ways in which interactions are perceived and interpreted and explores the reasons that conflicts emerge or fail to emerge. Finally, through interviews and observations involving a separate group of parents who have sought legal assistance, the study investigates how and why the formal legal framework is actually invoked and what affect it has on the relationship between parents, whom the law has attempted to empower, and schools. Dr. Engel's study tests prevailing assumptions that continuing relations are generally characterized by strong informal normative systems worked out cooperatively by the parties in a situation where reciprocity and the threat of withdrawal from the relationship may have little relevance. Conventional theories of continuing relations also assume that the invocation of formal law is less frequent than in one-time or intermittent interactions and that it is dysfunctional for the relationship. While this study may indeed discover that formal law is seldom invoked, it may also raise some questions as to whether the potential role of law in dealings between parents and school authorities is dysfunctional or functional for the relationship itself and for the various parties involved.