On this Father’s Day, I can’t help but be a little sad. Much as I will try to spend today letting my husband know how much our daughters and I appreciate him as a father, today is the anniversary of my own father’s death. Seven years ago today, and in many ways, it feels like yesterday.
I have been feeling particularly nostalgic about my dad lately, as I have recently embarked on “blogging” about the issues surrounding special education advocacy. In that process, as in my practice as a special education attorney, I often become wistful, wishing I could share with him my latest success, disappointment, or rant, or simply to analyze a case that just came out with him.
My late father, William M. Laviano, was a civil rights attorney to the core. He “fell into” special education law when a client he was representing in an employment discrimination matter asked him if he would represent him in an emergency IEP meeting for his son, who had ADHD and had gotten into some disciplinary trouble in school. Curious, my father went, and immediately sensed that this was a field where the “establishment” was getting away with violating the law on a regular basis. He was instantly offended by how the parents were treated, how the school district ignored their legal obligations, and in general, how unfair the special education “system” appeared.
He was hooked.
So began a dedication on my father’s part to “take on” school districts and how they treated students with disabilities. He never gave up practicing other types of civil rights litigation, but he became especially passionate about this area of the law. My dad was a force to be reckoned with in every way: a large, imposing, Italian litigator. He really looked like he was out of central casting to play the role of the intimidating cross-examiner. Let’s just say that the special education administrators in Connecticut had no idea what they were in for!
My father shook the special education establishment here quickly and thoroughly, and he took names. I don’t think a month passed that the State Department of Education wasn’t busy trying to comply with his latest Freedom of Information Request. The niceties of IEP Team Meetings were lost on him, and he had no problem telling someone that they were “full of crap,” to their face. I can still hear him yelling “If I hear one more teacher tell me that a kid has to take ‘OWNERSHIP’ of their program I’m going to spit….OWNERSHIP, what horseshit!” He swore like crazy, and loved the line from Inherit the Wind where Attorney Henry Drummond (based on Clarence Darrow) thunders “I don’t swear just for the hell of it! Language is a poor enough means of communication. I think we should use all the words we’ve got! Besides, there are damn few words that anybody understands!”
My father had an encyclopedic recall of both the IDEA and the cases interpreting it, and the creativity to find different ways to argue it still. He was a formidable opponent. He was also a whirling dervish.
Soon into practicing special education law, dad realized that he had spent his entire life with undiagnosed ADD. He had skipped grades because he was so smart, and graduated near the top of his law school class without taking a single note, and yet he wouldn’t be able to organize a file with a gun to his head! He was brilliant, incredibly funny, irreverent, loving and intolerable. As one of his clients said when he died “Bill Laviano could pick a fight in an empty room!” My sister once asked his doctor to prescribe his Ritalin in blow dart form.
So, what does it mean to me to be a second generation special education attorney?
Well, in many ways, wonderful things. It means it’s in my blood, and that I have a long, long history with the ways in which these cases play out, both on an informal and formal basis. I know the “players” in Connecticut in a way I never would have, if it weren’t for my dad. I was attending IEP meetings, mediations and Due Process Hearings with him in high school, college and law school. There is just no way to calculate the many ways in which I have benefited from having been practically raised to practice special education law.
In many more ways, it makes me so angry that there should continue to be such a need for special education attorneys. Here I am, more than twenty years after my father took on his first special education case, and I am still fighting the same fights, taking on the same issues, and seeing the same injustices that he saw all those years ago. While I know he would be proud of what I’m doing, and that he was before he passed, I don’t think he envisioned when he took on that first case in the late 1980s that his daughter would have to keep waging these same battles. And that I would still hear administrators excuse a child’s poor performance by saying that he isn’t “taking ownership” of his special education program!
What I do know, however, is that if he were here, he would be fighting too. And likely winning.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad.