Law students in Pepperdine's Special Education Advocacy Clinic Help Children with Disabilities Thrive in School
Imagine a child with Down syndrome, a young person with epilepsy, or someone with severe dyslexia. This person might be your neighbor, friend, or it might be you. More than 50 million Americans have disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy. This ever-increasing number has given rise to a growing area of the law: special education law.
At Pepperdine's Special Education Advocacy Clinic, law students work directly with the parents of special needs children to help those children get what they need in school. This fall, the clinic was staffed by longtime director and professor Richard Peterson and recent graduate and Nootbaar Fellow Nidya Paredes (JD '09). Under their direction, second-year law students Brittany and Courtney Henry, and third-year Natalie Nelson logged the long hours with clients and school districts.
"There are a lot of parents who are frustrated with their child's school system, and they also face the demands of raising a child with special needs," says Paredes, who took the special education law class her second year, and worked in the clinic her second and third year of law school. "They really need an advocate who understands special education law."
Staff and students at the clinic don't simply file the paperwork; their work is a little more complex. "The difference with special education law and other legal fields is that an attorney working in this field cannot just focus on the issue at hand," explains Paredes. "A special education attorney has to consider the relationship between the parent and the school district, particularly if the parent wishes for their child to remain in the district long after the attorney is gone."
In addition, the attorney must be aware that their work may only be good for one academic year, since a new Individualized Education Program (IEP) between the parents and the school will be drafted at minimum, once a year. Also, teachers and therapists come and go over the span of a school year, as does the child's lawyer, and a child may move to another school district. All of these things mean that the parent is the one constant in the child's life.
"It's tempting as lawyers and law students to want to do everything for the parents: draft letters, make phone calls to school districts on their behalf, negotiate at IEPs, and file for due process," says Paredes. "Sometimes it is necessary to do that, but not usually. Usually, all the parent of a child with disabilities needs is knowledge and confidence to be able to skillfully advocate for her child."
This fall, the clinic made great strides with clients' parents. They developed a comprehensive training that spanned six weeks, with each session lasting three hours and covering a range of topics: introduction to special education law, writing effective goals for a child's IEP, procedural safeguards, a letter-writing workshop, and a dispute resolution skills workshop.
Attendees came from different parts of Orange County, different ethnic backgrounds, and economic levels. Since Brittany, Courtney, and Paredes speak Spanish, they provided simultaneous Spanish translation to three attendees during the workshop. The students prepared the material provided to parents, helped research different areas of the law, and presented on those subjects.
Courtney, who joined the clinic because she was looking for a more hands-on experience in law school, was pleased with the result of the trainings. "It was such a confidence booster to get up and speak in front of a group of parents, some of whom are actually lawyers, on a subject I now know well," she says. "Being able to apply what I’ve learned in practice is very fulfilling."
Her sister Brittany, who previously tutored special needs children, enrolled in the clinic to hone her client-interaction skills. "One of the highlights of this semester was that one of my clients with Down syndrome was mainstreamed in a few classes and is now doing really well with the other kids," she says. "Mainstreaming" is the term for when a special needs student is placed in a classroom with non-special needs children. It is an initiative that the clinic frequently fights for because it often results in significant social and educational progress for the special needs student.
"You see the real impact that our work has when you talk to the parents," says Nelson, who was pleased with the feedback from the training sessions.
One parent of child with Down syndrome said the training taught her how to shape the goals set for her daughter. "Before the trainings I had no idea on the importance of making sure my daughter's goals were measurable," she says. "I used to just get the goals handed to me and I thought I had no right to speak up about them."
After hearing the positive response from parents, the clinic plans to continue presenting the trainings at least once each semester.
In the meantime, Paredes invites law students to enroll in the clinic. "I encourage all law students to consider participating in the special education clinic," she says. "Not only do you have the opportunity to do real legal work, you know at the end of the day that you are truly helping these parents and children. With disabilities on the rise, the needs in our field are increasing every day."
The students agree that working in the clinic has been invaluable. Brittany adds, "Getting this hands-on experience dealing with clients and their emotions, this is the stuff you can't learn in the classroom."
by Emily DiFrisco
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