Public Schools Have Made Your Child the Enemy and You, the Taxpayer, Are Funding Their Battle – Part II (A Case Study)

An Open Letter to the Williamson County (TN) School Board and Williamson County (TN) Commission from a Concerned Parent . . .

[Reprinted with permission.  Names withheld to protect the identity of the child.]

 

Dear County Commissioners and School Board Members,

I am writing regarding a resolution that both the Williamson County School Board and the County Commission are being asked to approve. The resolution includes amending the 2017-2018 general purchase school budget so that $575,000 can be used for legal fees for special education due process cases The resolution is attached. I am asking the School Board and the County Commission to ask two important questions before voting on this resolution:

1) How many special education due process cases is this $575,000 in legal fees being used for?

2) What was the total amount of money that these parents were asking Williamson County Schools to pay in their due process claim(s)?

If the $575,000 in legal fees surpasses the amount that Williamson County Schools was asked to pay the parents in the first place, as a taxpayer, I encourage you to ask district leaders additional questions.

I am a parent of one of the current special education due process cases against Williamson County Schools and because of this know information that you may not be aware of. Over the years of raising four children there have been times where one of them was struggling but wasn’t ready to talk about it. In some of those instances I remember encouraging them to share with me and telling them that I can’t help what I don’t know. I too believe that people who are elected to serve the community can’t help what they don’t know and it is with that in mind that I write to you today.

In the last five years Williamson County Schools used $570,000 of the taxpayer’s money to pay The Law Office of Melinda Jacobs to fight special education due process cases. As a taxpayer, I am alarmed at the amount of money I see Williamson County Schools spending in our one small claim. I believe that Williamson County Schools is easily on their way to spend more in legal fees with The Law Office of Melinda Jacobs and their expert witnesses to fight our claim prior to the first day of trial than the amount of money I am asking to be reimbursed. My claim is only for the special education services I paid for and not a penny more. Here are just a few of many examples that make me concerned about how tax dollars are being spent.

There is a large amount of taxpayer money being spent on unnecessary depositions. The Law Office of Melinda Jacobs is spending more days doing depositions than the total number of days allotted for our entire trial. They are deposing at least 21 of our people and are flying to New York, California and Missouri to depose providers that only spent a few hours with my child. Some of the people they are deposing didn’t even provide services during the time period of this due process claim so are irrelevant to the case.

There is a large amount of taxpayer money being spent on unnecessary expert witnesses. Williamson County Schools hired two expert witnesses which will likely cost the taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars. They hired David Rostetter to observe my son in his private school in April of 2018 even though our case is for the 2015/2016 and 2016/2017 school years. If Mike Looney and Carol Hendlmyer expect you to approve this they should have to explain to you how an observation in April of 2018 is relevant and necessary especially when there were already reports from a Williamson County School psychologist and a Williamson County School special education teacher who observed my child in this private school when developing the 2015/2016 IEP.

I encourage you to ask Mike Looney and Carol Hendlmyer how much money Williamson County Schools have paid their expert David Rostetter in the past and how much they anticipate paying him in our case and compare that figure alone to the amount of our claim. I think you will find it alarming. In addition, you might want to ask if there are any concerns with David Rostetter’s ability to conduct an observation being that he has been legally blind since the age of 12.

There is a large amount of taxpayer money being spent on other unnecessary attorney fees. Williamson County Schools paid for THREE attorneys from The Law Office of Melinda Jacobs as well as several school employees to go to a mediation for our case when they had zero intentions of settling the case that day. Did the taxpayers really need to pay for three lawyers and several Williamson County School employees that day when they already knew that they were not going to even attempt to settle the case

In addition, I would encourage the School Board or the County Commission to speak to Melinda Jacobs or another attorney special education attorney about the merits of the special education due process cases before approving this money.

In closing, over the last five years Williamson County Schools used $570,000 of taxpayer’s money (126 pages of invoices) to pay The Law Office of Melinda Jacobs to fight special education due process cases. More money may have been paid to other law firms as well. Now, they are asking you, us, for $575,000 more.

Last month Williamson County taxpayers, 8,155 of them, voted for a sales tax increase to fund Williamson County Schools. I would have to think that a large number of them would not have voted the way they did if they were aware of the amount of money that is being wasted on special education due process legal fees. Mike Looney and Carol Hendlmyer have not been good stewards of taxpayer dollars in regards to these legal fees and your oversight is needed to avoid the mistakes that other districts have made. Take a look at the actions of another Tennessee county in the Deal v Hamilton County TN Bd of Ed (6th Cir 2004) where the district spent $2.3 million to fight and lose a special education due process case that they could have settled for $150,000:

http://www.chattanoogan.com/2005/3/14/63675/Atlanta-Law-Firm-Charges-To-County.aspx

At one point, Melinda Jacobs, the attorney Williamson County Schools is using against us, worked for The Weatherly Law Firm who was the law firm for the school district in this case. David Rostetter, the expert witness Williamson County Schools is using against us was one of the expert witnesses in this case and was paid $74,632.47 for his testimony. Melinda Jacobs who has practiced in Knoxville since 1999 opened up a second location here in Franklin on August 15, 2016.

How much more of Williamson County taxpayer’s money is she expecting to make this second location worth her while? Would her other clients pay to put her up in expensive hotels like the Franklin Marriott as Williamson County Schools does? Again, your oversight is needed.

Public Schools Have Made Your Child the Enemy and You, the Taxpayer, Are Funding Their Battle

You pay federal taxes.  You have schools in your town.  Those schools have special education programs.  If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably a parent of a child with special needs.

Well, guess what?  If you have a dispute with your school about your child’s IEP or otherwise not meeting your child’s special education needs, YOU are paying for the school to fight against you and your child.

Guess what else? Even if you don’t have a child with special needs or don’t even have a child in the school district, YOU are still paying to have the school fight against the child with a disability and his/her family.

Yes, you heard that right.  YOU are paying to fight against children with disabilities in your community – maybe your own child.

Let me explain this in greater detail and why the system should change.

Federal Funding For Schools

The federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§1400 et seq. or “IDEA” protects students with disabilities and guarantees they receive an appopriate education from their local schools.  This is accomplished and enforced through a federal funding mechanism within IDEA.  If a state receives federal funding for its schools, it must provide special education and related services to children with disabilities in its public schools.  20 U.S.C. § 1412.

In other words, some of the federal taxes you pay goes to fund special education and related services for students with disabilities.  You probably don’t object to ensuring a wheelchair-bound child can access the school via ramps or a child with diabetes having access to the school nurse to administer insulin shots.  You also likely don’t object to a chid with a learning disability receiving extra help in the classroom so they can achieve with their non-disabled peers.

YOU don’t object . . . but the schools are.

Where Does the Funding Go?

Those federal funds for special education – your tax dollars – are supposed to be used to assess if children have disabilities and evaluate their needs, prepare Individualized Education Programs or “IEPs” with special education adn related services to meet those needs, and decide the best location to provide those services for the child.  20 U.S.C. §1414.  Just as non-disabled children can get their education at their local public school for free, the goal of IDEA is to provide the same for children with disabilities, called a Free Appropriate Public Education or “FAPE”.  20 U.S.C. §1401(9).

Still sounds pretty reasonable, right?

How Does A School Make Sure It Provides a FAPE?

Schools are supposed to ensure a child with a disability provides a FAPE via two main mechanisms: (1) assembling an IEP team; and (2) ensuring that the rights of the child are protected and the parents are active participants in enforcement of those rights.  Tax dollars pay for schools to assemble an IEP team, which consists of the child’s parents (and the child if appropriate) and several key school personnel, to discuss how best to provide FAPE for the child with a disability.  20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(1).  States and schools must also put procedures in place to secure the legal rights of the child with a disability and his/her parents.  20 U.S.C. §1415.

This is where the system usually breaks down.  Because the parents and the school staff don’t alawys agree on how the IEP is developed or what services are provided to the child with a disability.  Thereby, a dispute arises.

How IDEA Addresses Special Education Disputes – The Problem

IDEA provides mechanisms to address these special education disputes between parents and schools.  If a school wants to do something with which the parents don’t agree or if the school doesn’t want to do something the parents have suggested, the school can issue a Prior Written Notice or “PWN”.  20 U.S.C. §1415(b)(3) and (c)(1).  Parents can review their child’s education records kept by the school as a check on whether the school is providing a FAPE.  20 U.S.C. §1415(b)(1).

There are other “Procedural Safeguards” in IDEA, but none that causes as many problem as a party’s right to file a complaint challenging the “identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or the provision of a free appropriate public education to such child” a/k/a a “Due Process Complaint.”  20 U.S.C. §1415(b)(6) and (f).

Why is this a problem?  Well, anytime lawyers get involved, there’s a problem, right? [He says half-jokingly, half-seriously.]  Each party to a Due Process case has “the right to be accompanied and advised by counsel.”  20 U.S.C. §1415(h)(1).

Still not a bad thing until you realize who is paying the school district’s lawyer’s bill.  The answer is . . . you probably guessed it . . . YOU ARE!

Paying For The School District’s Lawyer

That’s correct.  Whether attorney’s fees are paid directly by the school district’s Board of Education or through insurance (which is purchased using school budget money), the source of the money paid to the lawyers fight against your child with a disability is tax dollars.  YOUR tax dollars.

Schools are misdirecting funds intended to provide education to children with disabilities by spending it on legal bills or insurance to fight special education cases.

So what does that mean?  It means YOU, the taxpayer, are paying for the attorney sitting across the table from you and representing the school district.  The harder the school district lawyer fights, the more YOU are paying him/her.  The school district never has the incentive to resolve the dispute because they’re not truly paying the bill.

Now, I don’t know if you have ever been in a lawsuit before, but if you have, you know what a financial burden it is to pay a lawyer.  You have the incentive to get it over as quickly as possible because, in all likelihood, you are not Bank of America (or Citibank or Goldman Sachs or some other big bank).  But if you didn’t have to pay for your lawyer, you’d fight to the ends of the Earth, right?  That’s how the school district views it.

Not What IDEA Was Designed To Do

IDEA was not set up to favor the school districts.  In fact, IDEA was designed by Congress to “level the playing field” so that parents had a stronger role in the education of their child with a disability.  Specifically, Congress stated: “The purposes of [IDEA] are to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living; to ensure that the rights of children with disabilities and parents of such children are protected; and to assist States, localities, educational service agencies, and Federal agencies to provide for the education of all children with disabilities” among other goals.  20 U.S.C. §1400(d)(1).

IDEA was meant to improve collaboration and cooperation between schools and parents to help children with disabilities receive better education.  Certainly, Congress did not intend for states and schools to use federal funds to wage bitter lawsuit wars against parents and their children with disabilities.

But that is what it has become.  Ask any of my colleagues at COPAA.

So What Can You Do About It? – TAKE ACTION!

If you are like me and fed up with this system of injustice and abuse of taxpayer money, you can take action.  What school districts and their attorneys don’t want you to know is that because the source of funds paying the lawyer fees is public tax money, they MUST disclose such payments to the public who are paying those taxes.

In other words, if you live in a school district that is waging a special education war against a child with a disability, you have the RIGHT to know how much the school is paying its lawyers.

How do you find this out?  You make a Freedom of Information Act or “FOIA” request (or your state’s version of FOIA; for example, in New Jersey it is called the Open Public Records Act or OPRA).

Each state has a website for FOIA requests (I’ve listed a few below as examples) and usually a form to fill out.  On the form ask to see “All fees and costs paid to lawyers by XYZ Schooll District for special education disputes or legal disputes under IDEA for the last 5 years” or something similar.  Prepare for a fight, but you have the lawful right to that information as long as you live in XYZ School District.

New Jersey OPRA Records Request Website and Form

Florida Public Records Act Website and Forms

Texas Open Records Requests Website and Forms

Pennsylvania Open Records Request Website and Forms

For those not listed here, Google “[Your state] FOIA request” and look for an official state website URL.

Go get ’em!

Audio Recording IEP Meetings – Is It Allowed?

Having an audio recording of what happens in an IEP meeting is powerful evidence, especially when school districts deny what was said or fail to put a service in writing into the IEP.   For example, an audio recording can prove or disprove what was actually discussed during the meeting, whether the parents were given proper opportunity to participate, and what decisions or objections were made.   For those reasons, parents often wonder if they are permitted to record an IEP meeting.

So, can you do it?

Federal Law

There is no federal law prohibiting a parent or school official from recording IEP meetings.  IDEA and the other special education laws are silent on that specific issue.

However, IDEA does say a few things that are relevant to the discussion:

  • Parents are critical members of the IEP team
  • Parental participation in IEP meetings is vital and if a school blocks such participation, it is a denial of FAPE
  • Parents have the legal right to understand the IEP and, if necessary, have it explained to them

Audio recording an IEP Meeting, when the IEP Team is aware and consents to it, is not a violation of federal privacy law.

So that means you can do it, right? Not so fast.

The U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) has issued a letter opinion and Policy Memorandum on this subject in June 4, 2003 (PDF file).  The bottom line of the analysis is that it is a local policy issue and depends on several factors.

When a federal law is silent on an issue, the individual states can decide or legislate on the issue.

State Privacy Laws

The next hurdle to overcome is what state law says on privacy and audio recordings.  Each state has its own laws regarding the consent required to audio record events, even if they are ‘public’ events.

Some states are known as ‘dual consent’, which means both parties must know about and agree to the recording.  Some states are ‘single consent’ which means that only one of the interested parties (usually the parent who wishes to record the IEP meeting) has to agree to it.

While not exhaustive of every state’s law, the Digital Media Law Project collected links to some state’s laws on this issue.  This site is not being kept up to date, so make sure you check your own state’s law on recording or consult with a local attorney.

School District Policies

It is therefore left to the State Educational Agency (SEA) or Local Educational Agency (LEA) to determine the policy on audio recording these sessions.

The SEA or LEA (local school district) may issue a policy requiring, prohibiting, limiting or in any other way regulating audio recording of IEP Meetings.  If the public agency has a policy that prohibits or limits the use of recording devices at IEP meetings, the policy must have exceptions necessary to protect parental rights, such as the ability to understand the IEP or the IEP process. Any such policy on tape recording IEP meetings must be uniformly applied.

Protecting Access to Recordings

Any recording of an IEP meeting maintained by a public agency is an “education record,” within the meaning of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)[1] and would be obtainable by the parents through a written request.  It would also be subject to the protections of FERPA prohibiting its release to anyone not authorized under that law.

So what do you do?

Parents wishing to use audio or video recording devices at IEP meetings should consult state laws or local school policies for further guidance or consult with a local education attorney.

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[1] 20 USC §§1232g and 1232h; Regulations 34 CFR §99.1 et seq.

Ethics Rules You Might Not Know . . .

I think many, too many, lawyers have forgotten what the ethics rules (“Rules of Professional Conduct”) really say. I encourage every lawyer (especially school district counsel) to go back and read their ethics rules (each state has their own, based on the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct) periodically. This will help them understand that the role of lawyer is not just to make money.

Here are some ethics rules you might not have known, excerpted from the Preamble to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct:

• A lawyer, as a member of the legal profession, is a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.

• A lawyer who commits fraud in the conduct of a business is subject to discipline for engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.

• In all professional functions a lawyer should be competent, prompt and diligent. A lawyer should maintain communication with a client concerning the representation.

• A lawyer should use the law’s procedures only for legitimate purposes and not to harass or intimidate others. A lawyer should demonstrate respect for the legal system and for those who serve it, including judges, other lawyers and public officials.

• As a public citizen, a lawyer should seek improvement of the law, access to the legal system, the administration of justice and the quality of service rendered by the legal profession.

• In addition, a lawyer should further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.

• A lawyer should be mindful of deficiencies in the administration of justice and of the fact that the poor, and sometimes persons who are not poor, cannot afford adequate legal assistance.

• A lawyer is also guided by personal conscience and the approbation of professional peers. A lawyer should strive to attain the highest level of skill, to improve the law and the legal profession and to exemplify the legal profession’s ideals of public service.

• These principles include the lawyer’s obligation zealously to protect and pursue a client’s legitimate interests, within the bounds of the law, while maintaining a professional, courteous and civil attitude toward all persons involved in the legal system.

• The legal profession has a responsibility to assure that its regulations are conceived in the public interest and not in furtherance of parochial or self-interested concerns of the bar.

• Lawyers play a vital role in the preservation of society. The fulfillment of this role requires an understanding by lawyers of their relationship to our legal system. The Rules of Professional Conduct, when properly applied, serve to define that relationship.

Excerpted from ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct

My favorite of these is that “A lawyer is also guided by personal conscience”; in other words, lawyers should not be guided simply by the pursuit of money, but rather should be guided by a set of morals. I think this is the one that lawyers most often forget. That being an attorney is not just a job; what makes it a “profession” is that we act as professionals and use good, sound, moral judgment in using our license to practice law in any capacity.

Please always keep this in mind.

How School Districts Have Forgotten What Their Job Is

I filed a brief in a special education case recently opposing a motion to dismiss the case. Want to share the Introduction as it spells out my view of how school districts (and their insurance companies) are treating kids with disabilities:

What is getting lost in the legal gymnastics of the pending motions to dismiss is that this case is about the education of a young disabled child, D.M., who was abused by the public school system and staff with whom he and his parents entrusted his education and safety. Yet, no Defendant in this case wants to accept responsibility or be held accountable for the tragic harm done to D.M., a little boy with Autism and other co-morbidities. Children with Autism are more susceptible to abuse and bullying, particularly in the public school environment.

Although not expressly stated in the Constitution, our highest Court has recognized that education is a fundamental right. See, e.g., Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) (“In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”) Furthermore, through the Equal Protection Clause and other federal legislation, education of disabled children is also protected as a fundamental right and goal of our society. See, e.g., Board of Education v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 179-84, 102 S.Ct. 3034, 73 L.Ed.2d 690 (1982).

Apparently, the Defendants in this case must feel that physically restraining and abusing a disabled child; emotionally and psychologically abusing that same disabled child; and exposing that disabled child to an unsafe, hostile education environment through the efforts of purported ‘experts’ on the Child Study Team by placing D.M. in a classroom with unqualified and dangerous personnel is perfectly acceptable by the standards of 2011-12. One must reach this conclusion by the exhibition of the extensive and ultimately futile efforts of the Defendants to dismiss this action.


Tales from the Front – Actual (Illegal) Statements Made by School Personnel

I did a seminar recently. My seminar was on what to expect at an IEP/504 meeting. Here are some of the comments I heard from parents spoken to them by school districts:

“We are at our quota of eligible disabled students already. We can’t have more.”

“Evaluations must be done in the summer time.”

“Your child (with muscular dystrophy) is not allowed to use a wheelchair in school.”

“[A disciplinary action against a child with a disability and IEP] is completely an internal school matter. You don’t need to worry about it.”

[From a case manager] “I’m not sure what to do. What do you want me to do?”

“You want a person assigned to your child (in a manual wheelchair) to ensure they get out of the school during an emergency? We don’t do that.”

“[A child with MD but not in a wheelchair] is not entitled to use the elevator. She must use the stairs.” (Child falls a lot).

“Your child is depressed.” (No, exhausted from fatigue by the middle of the school day.) “She needs to be on anti-depression medication so that her grades improve.”

[Child has received 50s and 60s on math tests, yet child got a “B” on her report card].
———————-

I heard these statements with great dismay. They are not only false, hurtful, and deceitful, they are illegal. The law protects against all of these things, but too often parents don’t know that the schools are wrong.

If you think the school is telling you incorrect things concerning services or accommodations for your disabled child, please contact a special education lawyer or advocate and ask questions.


The Dangerous Use of the Word “Cure”

I’m shocked. It takes a lot to shock me these days, but I am admittedly shocked. My alarm has been set off by numerous recent studies into the “cause” of Autism. I’m not alarmed purely because of the research, but rather what it may implicate and the resulting frightening thoughts of how we, as a society, would implement a “cure”.

There were studies attempting to link childhood vaccinations to Autism, but those studies were found to be faulty and in one case “an elaborate fraud”, but nevertheless absent of a link between vaccines and Autism.  See Autism Speaks Policy Statement on Vaccinations and Autism; and CNN report about the British Medical Journal’s retraction of Dr. Wakefield’sstudies as fraudulent.

Another recent study published in the August 12, 2013edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics links induced or augmented labor to Autism.  Still another report by the New York Times attempting to say that Autism and cancer were linked via a “cancer gene” was exposed as extremely unreliable.

This brings me to my concern; actually, two concerns.

The first – that because Autism is a hot topic and the rapid increase in the number of cases of Autism in the population is startling to some (disregarding the fact that proper techniques to diagnosis Autism are a recent event proving that there is not an increase in the development of Autism, but rather an increase in number of discovered incidence) the media jumps on any report that seems to find the “cause” of Autism – I can do nothing about.  What sells “news” and media is beyond my control and I can do nothing other than be exasperated.

The second concern, about which I believe I CAN do something, is what I believe is the next step that follows the discovery of the “cause” of Autism – the “cure” for Autism.  This should be a source of alarm and concern for everyone and, frankly, is a disturbing and dangerous use of the otherwise constructive term “cure”.This dangerous use is attempting to redefine “cure” to mean “prevention” rather than its true definition.

Most dictionaries define “cure” as follows:

cure: n. 1. a means of healing or restoring to health; remedy. 2. a method or course of remedial treatment, as for disease. 3. successful remedial treatment; restoration to health.

Source: Dictionary.com, http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/cure?s=t

Thus, “cure” means to “restore to health” or “remedy”.  In other words, if you have a virus or disease, the cure may be a drug or treatment that restores you to health. In a sense, chicken soup may be viewed as the cure for the common cold.  (I know several Jewish mothers who swear by that.)  This definition refers to healing people who are currently alive.

How can this be bad?

On August 14, 2013, the Autism Support Network’s Facebook page posted this question: “Would you terminate your pregnancy if you knew your child would have autism?”  Thankfully, the responses were unanimously “no” and several people were puzzled why an “Autism support network” would even pose that question.  The members of this network are parents of children with Autism who have already been born.

The insidious and heinous implication of this question is that we, as a society, will view abortion or intra-uterus genetic alterations as a “cure” for Autism.  People are seeking to prevent Autism.  While that, too, sounds like a noble pursuit, it is extremely dangerous and Orwellian in its possibilities.  What is next? Sterilization of those who have a gene that causes Autism or those who have Autism?  Government-imposed removal of reproductive parts of people who have Autism in their family history?

I know these examples are extreme and hopefully absurd, but I do wonder how this urge to find the cause of Autism has led to tenuous research projects and where such research might lead.

I have a better idea.  Rather than spend millions (perhaps billions) of dollars on fruitless research into the cause of Autism (which is most likely genetic and not “curable” absent one of the horrific methods I describe above), redirect those funds to research into therapies or providing services for families that have living, breathing, wonderful children with Autism.  The daily lives of such families are rife with challenges and they deserve all of the help and support that we, as a society, can muster.

If you want to redefine the word “cure” when it comes to Autism, redefine it to mean “support”.


Are Special Education Advocates Performing UPL (Unauthorized Practice of Law)?

The answer to the question posed in the title is, typically, lawyerly – it depends.

What is the “practice of law”? “Unauthorized practice of law (UPL)”?

First, let’s discuss what is the “practice of law” and “UPL”.  Virtually every licensed occupation is regulated by the State.  For example, in Pennsylvania, the Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs regulates almost every licensed occupation, such as accountants, nurses, barbers, funeral directors, dentists, etc.  However, lawyers are regulated exclusively by the highest court of the state – in Pennsylvania, it is the PA Supreme Court.  This regulation includes the power to define what constitutes the practice of law.  See PA. Constitution Article V, Section 10(c).

That is not as easy as it sounds. Courts don’t face this issue very frequently. Generally, there are three categories of activities / services reserved to those who are admitted to the bar: (1) advising clients as to what the law is to enable them to act and pursue their affairs; (2) preparation of documents that require familiarity with legal principles an ordinary person wouldn’t know (such as preparing a court document); and (3) appearing before a public tribunal, such as a court or administrative hearing.  Put another way, a person who doesn’t have a license to practice law should not tell someone what the law is and advise them to act accordingly, prepare a legal document, or show up in court on behalf of anyone but him/herself.  Doing so would be the unauthorized practice of law, or “UPL”.

A person can get in serious trouble for UPL.  In fact, in most states it is a crime.  In Pennsylvania, for example, it is a misdemeanor of the 3rd degree for a first time offender; misdemeanor of the 1st degree for a repeat offender.  See 42 Pa.C.S. Section 2524(a).  It may also be a violation of a state’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law, which would subject them to civil (money) penalties.

Special Ed Advocates and UPL

So how does this apply to Special Education Advocates?  Again, it depends.  A description of the typical special education law case timeline is helpful.

Briefly, the first event is that a child is diagnosed with a disability that triggers the right to have special education in school.  The next event is that a team of school personnel, physicians, and the parents decide what should be in the special education program for that child (this is called an Individualized Education Plan or “IEP”).  Sometimes there is disagreement over what should be in the IEP or how the school is implementing it.  What comes next may be a due process complaint and hearing.  This is a semi-formal process where the school and the parents put on a case before a hearing officer (not always even a lawyer).  The hearing officer decides whether the services are appropriate or not.  If either the school or the parent disagrees, they can then appeal that hearing officer decision to a court.

The laws and regulations make it clear that parents are entitled to have “other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the child, including related services personnel as appropriate” with them at IEP meetings.  See 20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(1)(B) and 34 CFR §300.321(a)(6).

As a result of this language in the laws, a cottage industry of advocates, mostly made up of parents of disabled children themselves who are veterans of the battles with schools over special education, has developed and flourished.

Do not misunderstand me – I think advocates are wonderful and perform great services to parents, especially since most parents of special needs kids are heavily burdened with medical and other expenses making lawyers unaffordable at almost every level.  Well-trained advocates offer objective, yet passionate assistance to parents so that they can make informed decisions without the emotions getting in the way.

However, there are limits to this participation.  The portion of the law quoted above comes under the definition of an “IEP team”.  Matching that with the description above of what is the practice of law, an advocate should stick to helping a parent to prepare for and make it through the IEP meeting in an informed manner.  The advocate should be careful not to suggest a path for a parent based on an interpretation of the law – this is acting like a legal advisor and is likely UPL.  However, an advocate can certainly tell a parent, “the law states that an IEP should include . . .” or that the law requires certain procedures to be followed.

So what CAN’T an advocate do?  This depends a great deal on state law.  While some states permit advocates to act as lawyers in due process hearings, most states still do not.  To be safe, an advocate should not prepare a due process complaint, represent a parent at a due process hearing, or draft an appeal of the hearing officer decision in a court pleading.  These are all the practice of law and if an advocate, not licensed to practice law in that state, provides one of those services, it is UPL.  Of course, there are licensed attorneys who provide advocacy services, so they are entitled to provide any and all of these services.

Why is UPL a bad thing?

The reason why the above-described tasks are UPL may not be so obvious.  Many people might think, “I represented myself in my own divorce case, so why can’t someone help me with my special ed case?”  And therein is the answer – you can represent YOURSELF in any legal proceeding (that is called acting “pro se” or for yourself), but someone else cannot represent you.  Why?  Lawyers are trained to understand, not just the law, but legal procedure.  For example, it is important in a due process complaint to make sure you plead every option available to you; failure to do so might give up a right or two or seven.  In some states, you may have a civil rights case under Section 504 or the ADA, but many advocates don’t know this or even if they do, they don’t know you MUST include those allegations in your due process complaint.

Two other critical examples are the Rules of Evidence and Appellate Procedure.  Most advocates don’t know the rules of how documents or testimony get “into evidence” so that a judge can consider them.  Further, if you have to appeal an administrative decision to court, it is like an appeal and sometimes only the record that is made at the due process hearing is considered by the court and if you don’t get the information in at the due process level, you might have to fight a battle at the appeal level to get it in – and you might lose.  Many well-trained advocates don’t know these rules because they aren’t licensed lawyers.

To conclude, Advocates are a necessary and crucial part of the special education process.  There is no better (and more affordable) help with making sense of this maze of special education law, especially when you are simply trying to get services for your child at school, than a well-trained advocate.  However, remember that they are limited in what they can do and when it comes to advising you on a legal path or preparing your complaints or representing you at a hearing, only licensed attorneys can help you in those situations.


Recommended reading: “Guidelines for Choosing an Advocate” from COPAA.

 

I love teachers! . . . (really, I do!)

There is a bad reputation out there for special education lawyers, advocates and parents of special education kids.  The reputation is that we hate all school teachers and those who work in the schools and we are simply out for vengeance.

I’m going to focus this post on the misrepresentation that I must hate teachers because I’m a special education lawyer.  Absolutely – 180 degrees – the opposite.  I LOVE teachers.  Let me explain why and how we all fit as perfectly aligned spokes in the wheel of special education.

Teachers have thankless jobs.  Often they aren’t paid very well, but are teachers because they love kids and they love education.  Big plus in my opinion.  After all, that is what we all want; people in the field of education who love to teach kids.

Most teachers are also sensitive to the needs of disabled / special education kids.  They understand the challenges that these kids face and try their best to accommodate them so that they, too, receive a good education along with the “neuro-typical” or otherwise non-disabled kids.

Some teachers even go out of their way (bless their hearts) to go above and beyond their job requirements to help these kids.  Some even violate rules or the directions of the administrators in order to assist special ed kids.

So, often, my beef is not with the teachers.  In fact, almost never is my argument with the teachers.  My argument is with the school district who handcuffs the teacher or who misinforms the teacher as to what he/she should do for the special education child.  I have seen the school districts actually incorrectly state the law to teachers.  Whether that is intentional or not, I don’t know.

Granted, there are some teachers that are not altruistic and just want their paycheck.  But like any occupation, there are a few bad apples in every bunch.  Of course the really bad ones make the news, which is unfortunate because the overwhelming majority of teachers are fantastic.  And I love them for that.  It is no different than lawyers and having to deal with the ones that make the news leaving a bad impression on people that all lawyers have heinous or monetary objectives.  Similarly, there are doctors who don’t really care about their patients and may even commit fraud in order to make money.  But these bad apples do NOT represent the bunch.

Where I, as a special education lawyer, fit in to this mix is just to make sure the disabled child (and his/her parents) have a voice and to assure that school districts are meeting the requirements to provide the child with a Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”).  My job, as I see it, is to level the playing field.  Sometimes that simply means legally justifying or backing up what the well-intentioned teacher is already trying to do, but for whatever reason the school administration is not permitting.  Frequently, I work with and speak with teachers (the old line, ‘Some of my best friends are teachers’ ha ha – but it’s true) as a team.  We work together to find solutions for the children.

If you walk away after reading this blog post with ANYTHING, please keep the idea that special education lawyers, advocates and parents do not hate teachers.  We love them.  We love them just as much as the disabled children we are trying to help.

So let’s work together in this area of law.  Do not generate stereotypes that only serve to interfere with cooperation and progress in the field of special education law.  Our children deserve better.


Free (legal services) or not free . . . that is the question

I’ve had a lot of people ask me lately if I provide free legal services or if I can take their case for free.  The answers are: (1) Yes, I do pro bono (free legal) work through South Jersey Legal Services (www.lsnj.org/sjls);  and (2) No, if you can afford a mechanic, HVAC repairman or doctor, you can afford a lawyer and I won’t take your case for free.

Some interesting (you might think boring) statistics about lawyers that I want to share (from an ABA survey in April 2012):

1.  Of the 1.2 million lawyers in the U.S., 75% or 934,000 are in private practice (rest in gov’t, corporations, legal aid, etc.)

2.  Of those, 460,000 or roughly 50% are solo attorneys

3.  Studies vary, but my estimate is that the median income of solo attorneys is about $60,000. (NOTE: I’ve read virtually every study on median incomes of attorneys and the articles criticizing those studies too.)

4.  Most analyses suggest that a family of 3 or 4 cannot survive on $60,000 in today’s economy.  See e.g. Can a family of four survive on a middle class income in America today?

The purpose of this post is to dispel the myth that all lawyers are really rich and not working hard for their money.  Most lawyers are solo lawyers just trying to eke out a living and provide for their families.  But solos are people too, who need to pay their mortgage, bills, and feed their families.

I realize that many parents of special education children are already financially tapped to the maximum, but the good news is that under most special education laws if you win your case you get your legal fees repaid!

So, despite what jokes Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel are telling about lawyers and in spite of the moron lawyers who are filing stupid lawsuits (like the one against the Sandy Hook school for $100M), most lawyers are NOT rolling in the moolah and can’t afford to take your case for free.  After all, do you ask your doctor to cure you for free?  Do you ask your car mechanic to fix you car for free?  When your heater is broken down in the dead of winter, do you expect the HVAC specialist to come out to your house and fix it for free?