Representing children and adolescents with special education needs is an honor and privilege, and I have to say that I really love my chosen field. But some days it can also be exhausting and depressing. School districts have the ability, and too often the inclination, to fight families over services, sometimes for years. Time is on their side, not the child’s. Many, many days it feels like I’m pushing the ball uphill. And yet, I know that as frustrated as I feel fighting to secure appropriate special education programs for kids, it doesn’t even compare to how overwhelmed their parents are.
Part of my role is to advise my clients when and whether they should fight.
I’ve written many times about the risks of Special Education Due Process Hearings, and what families can expect if they decide to litigate against their school district in this fashion. I always feel that this process is a “last resort” to be pursued only if attempts at resolution through Mediation and other methods are unsuccessful. When I do have to fight a district in Due Process, however, I am typically amazed at the fortitude which the parents demonstrate through the many weeks and months of the battle.
The wheels of justice turn very slowly sometimes.
So, given how risky IDEA litigation can be, I cherish every victory which my clients have secured over the years. One in particular I think about often, because it taught me an early and important lesson about assuming anything about people based on their disabilities.
It was a case I took on early in my career, when I’d only handled a few Due Process Hearings. The parents had been referred to me because they didn’t know where to turn. Their son had suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) as a young boy, and when they came to me he was in high school. He had been receiving special education services from the school district for most of his education. At the time the mother called me, she was requesting that he be placed in an intensive private school program for students with learning disabilities.
I remember being immediately stricken by how “spot on” the mother’s instincts were, even though she had little formal education, and almost no understanding of her rights under the IDEA.
Very long story short, the school district had committed to the private placement at an IEP meeting before my involvement, and then about a week later they tried to renege on the deal when they discovered what it cost. The IEP clearly stated that the private school was the agreed-upon placement. The parents had no money to fight a full hearing, and the mother begged me to take on her son’s case pro bono. I figured it would be an easy fix, given the clear documentation.
Yet another reminder that special education disputes are very unpredictable.
In almost any other situation here in Connecticut, all it would have taken to resolve this matter was a discussion or two between me and the school district’s attorney. But in this case, I was dealing with a large urban district who was represented by the city’s legal counsel, instead of a school-district special education attorney. Translation: they are on salary and it doesn’t cost the school district another dime in attorney’s fees to fight the case.
After several attempts to avoid it, we ended up in a lengthy Due Process Hearing, which we ultimately won.
It was great news: the Hearing Officer not only found that the private school was the last agreed-upon placement, but she further found that it was the most appropriate placement for him at the time. Importantly, she did not credit the school district’s argument that the student, whose cognitive profile was somewhat uneven given the TBI but who had many strengths and was a very hard worker, had limited potential. My clients were thrilled, I was thrilled, and the student was able to complete his high school education at the private school, funded by his school district.
I have never forgotten how passionately the parents, and the private school staff, spoke about how the student did, indeed, have a chance at a successful, independent future. I was fortunate enough to meet the kid myself, and he was impressive indeed. I was so inspired by his tireless effort, energy and enthusiasm for school, even though learning was so very, very hard for him.
This case was my first real lesson that IQ and other test scores do not tell the whole story of a student and what they are capable of learning.
I lost touch with the family years ago, as usually happens. I always tell my clients that my goal for my representation is that they don’t need me anymore. After all, who wants to have a lawyer with them at every meeting they have with their child’s special education team? But today, I got a call from the boy’s mother. She was clearing out some papers and came across some records from the Due Process Hearing, and she decided to call to update me on how her son had turned out.
I was a little anxious to hear what he was up to; after all, I get a lot of pretty bad news in my business.
It seems my former client, the one whose school district thought was incapable of college prep work in high school; the one whose parents had to hire a lawyer to prove he could learn more than just functional skills; the one who stayed up later than everyone else and got up earlier and worked five times harder to learn the same stuff that came easily to his peers…that one? He just received his Master’s Degree.
Yup, some days it really is worth it.