"Liam, come over here and meet your legal team," law professor Richard Peterson motioned to Liam Cahill at their first meeting. Peterson then introduced him to the students in the Pepperdine Special Education Advocacy Clinic (PSEAC).
A flood of relief washed over Liam's parents, Mike and Linda. After battling their local school district for 11 and a half years on behalf of their son's education, the Cahills were drowning in legal documents, struggling under the weight of hefty tuition bills, and feeling voiceless after having been denied representation by two different special education lawyers due to the complexity of their case. All this in pursuit of a "free" and "appropriate" education for their son-a right that many take for granted.
Bringing justice to families like the Cahills is the mission of the Pepperdine clinic, which Peterson founded in 2002. While enriching the legal education of Pepperdine law students through participation in this public interest area of the law, parents and families of children with disabilities receive advocacy services and training-all free of charge.
Finally, Linda thought, someone was throwing them a rope. "The financial burden has been great and the sound of some relief was so welcome," she says.
Meet Liam Cahill
Liam Cahill was born deaf in one ear and with a severe hearing loss in the other. He also struggles with ADHD, ataxic cerebral palsy, sensory integration issues, and some social issues. According to the Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) program mandated by the United States Department of Education, disabled children in the United States are guaranteed the appropriate educational services at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge to parents except for fees charged for all students.
Unfortunately the public school district in the Cahills' hometown of Santa Barbara did not have an appropriate program to meet Liam's needs. Thus, they entered into an agreement to a non-public (NPS) placement at the John Tracy Clinic Pre-School (an oral program for deaf and hard of hearing children) in downtown Los Angeles. Liam and Linda relocated nearer to the school while Mike and their three daughters remained in Santa Barbara, tending to the family business. When Liam finished pre-school, the district entered into a settlement with the Cahills to provide them with a portion of the expenses for Liam to attend Oralingua School for the Hearing Impaired in Whittier, Ca.
The separate living situation was not the problem. "As a family, they are willing to make sacrifices to give Liam what he needs," Peterson notes. The problem arose five years later, when Liam grew out of the prescribed program. He was the oldest child in the school and, after receiving a cochlear implant at age 7, he didn't need the same interventions as other deaf children. "Liam was doing so well with the cochlear implant that the learning disability became his major disability," Linda remembers.
The Cahills tried to work with the Santa Barbara school district to come up with a new "Individual Education Plan" (IEP), a federal document mandated by the Individual with Disabilities Education Act, but the district "didn't know what to do with Liam," Linda explains. The Cahills took it upon themselves to find an appropriate placement for their son, and soon they found Summit View, a private school for children with "learning differences," located in Valley Glen in Los Angeles County. "They saw that he could function in the school with a cochlear implant, so they took him. He's been there a year and a half, and he's so happy. It's an absolutely perfect placement for him," Linda says.
But the district did not want to pay for Liam to attend Summit View. After several meetings with a growing group of administrators, the tone became very adversarial. Although there wasn't a program in place there, the district made a unilateral decision to bring Liam back to a local school. "The program really doesn't exist unless Liam's in it. It's completely inappropriate in so many ways," Linda says. "We just kept feeling like our rights were being ignored."
Since enrolling Liam at Summit View, the Cahills have been paying for the $30,000/year tuition, housing, and mileage costs all out of pocket. They knew they were in over their heads and needed legal representation. While other attorneys turned them down, Professor Peterson was happy to make the Cahill case a priority, even over the summer and despite his demanding schedule.
"This population of people have historically been so marginalized and dehumanized, so we set out to not only represent them in litigation but to find the means by we could get the school district to do the right thing," he says.
First and foremost, Peterson assigned each student in the PSEAC the task of organizing the Cahills' multiple stacks of paperwork from the district, and distilling down the important information. He then set out to re-establish the lines of communication with the school district and heal the wounded relationship.
"One of our goals in our clinic is to systemically change that," Peterson says of the adversarial nature of these meetings. "Many special educators are so unsettled by the process that we're losing many good educators."
Peterson's comprehensive knowledge of special education law and the complexities of the public educational bureaucracy were the most valuable resources, Mike says. "He knows the law so well, which is such a great gift."
"We've done a lot of research on our own, but there are so many parents who don't have the know-how or the time or maybe they don't speak English that well. It's so critical for that kind of work to continue," adds Linda.
As for Liam, there is still another IEP meeting scheduled to determine his educational fate, but after several mediations, Peterson is confident that he will remain at Summit View School and that the Cahills will not go into bankruptcy to give Liam the education he needs.
"We are so appreciative of the enormous amount of time and energy Professor Peterson and his students spent on our son's case and continue to do so," Linda says. "Without them," Mike chimes in, "Liam in all likelihood would have been relegated to a life of wasted potential and irreparable psychological damage."
Peterson notes that the Pepperdine clinic is a mutually beneficial enterprise. "For students, it's one of those opportunities in their legal education to feel humanity in the law and to see the psychological and emotional impact that the law has on people," he says. Of course, contributing to Liam's life has been quite rewarding for him as well. "I've never done anything in my life that has given me greater satisfaction in the law particularly, than working with these great people."
For more information on the PSEAC, visit the clinic's Web site.