Patriotism and Special Education

Published on July 4, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

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I love the Fourth of July.  It is one of my favorite holidays, in part because I consider myself a real Patriot.  I love my country for all of its glories and its faults, and I have been known to cry when reading the Constitution.   When I was in college, I used to force my friends to watch the musical 1776 on the Fourth of July, something they really hated.  Yes, it’s fair to say that when it comes to my country, its history and its ideals, I am a complete dork.

No doubt my fascination with the structure of the government of the United States contributed to my decision to become an attorney.

Jerry Seinfeld made a great comment about lawyers:  “we’re all playing the game,” he said, “but the lawyers have read the top of the box.”  I love this quote, because it really summarizes so much of how I feel as an attorney.  Understanding the way my country’s legal system works is not only my career, but it empowers me as a citizen.  And yet, I recognize that the vast majority of the people whose lives are impacted by our laws do not understand the legal system, let alone have access to it.

In few areas of the law is there a better demonstration of the ideals of the Founding Fathers than in the IDEA.

Now, if you know me, or even if you don’t but you read my blog, then you also know that I have a tremendous amount of criticism for the ways in which our special education system is serving our children with disabilities.  Fighting to secure appropriate special education programs is how I make my living, and it is also my passion.  Obviously, in my Connecticut law office, I am faced regularly with examples of how school districts are failing to comply with the IDEA, both as a matter of procedure and of substance.

However, the realization that IDEA’s mandates are not being met should in no way be confused with admiration for the Statute itself.

I don’t believe that the IDEA as currently written is perfect; in fact, there are dozens of changes I’d love to see.  However, it is still a pretty remarkable law.  It contemplates a vast number of situations which can and will occur in our public schools, and provides great detail about how children with disabilities should be evaluated, identified, and educated.  The IDEA envisions everything from disciplinary disputes to summer programming for children with disabilities.  The very same law that covers early intervention for infants and toddlers with special needs also outlines Transition Services for students with special education needs entering adulthood.

I will admit it, I really do love the IDEA.

One of the reasons I so appreciate and love this statute is because of what I call the “gut check.”  Whenever I encounter a situation which just doesn’t feel right, whether it’s my own experiences attending an IEP meeting for a client, or listening to a parent tell me about what has happened to their child, more often than not I can find a way in which the IDEA has been violated.  There are, of course, always those circumstances where something is unfair, but not illegal.  But in general, the IDEA is an entitlement Act with teeth.

The IDEA is written in a way that allows for flexibility, but also outlines fundamental special education rights of children and their parents.

Something about the way the IDEA envisions a just and equitable educational system as it regards kids with special education needs speaks to me as an American.  It really is about all of the things that I love about the founding principles of the USA:  justice, fairness, individual rights, recognizing that with power comes responsibility.  Protecting the most vulnerable among us.

When it comes to injustice in special education laws, I really don’t fault the document itself.

Just as there are years (sometimes longer stretches of time) where it seems as if all of the cases are going against parents of children with disabilities, there are other years where it feels like the Hearing Officers and Courts “get it.”  In this way, special education law is no different from any other area of law, or from politics, for that matter.  The IDEA itself needs some work, of course, but it really is a great statute.

Much like the Constitution, the problem with the IDEA isn’t necessarily in the drafting, it’s in the implementation and enforcement.

But tonight, as I watched the fireworks, I was grateful for both.

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