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Turning Setbacks into Successes

Pepperdine’s Special Education Advocacy Clinic helps parents advocate for their children with special needs.

*Photo: Gianni Manganelli, a former client of Pepperdine’s Special Education Advocacy Clinic, worked as an intern at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Mauna KeaHawai'i.

The Manganellis

Middle school can be a tough time for many students. Gianni Manganelli, a deaf student, had a particularly difficult time. Despite having an IQ over 160, Manganelli struggled in class, often receiving poor grades. As the school failed to provide him the educational resources he needed, his parents grew more and more frustrated before pulling him out of school entirely for four months.

At that point his parents were referred to Pepperdine’s Special Education Advocacy Clinic, where director of the clinic, Richard Peterson, together with Pepperdine law students, represent students with special needs, ensuring that they receive the help they are guaranteed by law. The district simply could not accommodate his difference,” says Gianni’s father Robert Manganelli. “But Professor Richard Peterson and his students at the clinic really got it. Our narrative touched their spirit and they worked tirelessly.”

As mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, each child with special needs who is eligible for special education must have an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which details educational goals for that child. IEPs are created by a team of educators, therapists, and the child’s parents. In the case of the Manganelli’s, however, the school failed to listen to the parents or provide enough resources to ensure that the child could succeed. When parents come to Pepperdine’s clinic, they get legal representation to help them advocate for their child.

After Peterson and his students worked with the school to revise Manganelli’s IEP, he returned to school, where, with additional resources, Manganelli began to excel. Today he is a sophomore at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where his major is Imaging Science and his minor is Japanese.

“I have always felt I ‘lagged’ behind everybody else because of my time out of school,” Manganelli explains. “However, in college, I don’t feel this anymore. The middle school/high school educational environment is very closed-minded, and my talents were not recognized. Here in college, I feel that I am recognized. If it wasn't for the clinic, I am sure that absolutely none of this would have happened. I would be a very different person right now. I am fortunate that the clinic was here for me.”

The Millmans

Manganelli is one of many students with special needs who can fall through the cracks of a school system. School of Law alumna Kim Millman had a similar experience with her son Scot, who has been dually diagnosed as highly gifted and severely dyslexic. “As the 2006-2007 school year was about to start, the district conducted an IEP for my son, Scot,” recalls Kim. “The IEP took place at Scot’s ‘home’ middle school, which Scot had never attended. The IEP participants consisted of a group of the district’s educators, none of whom had ever met my son, even for so much as an interview. The entire IEP was conducted and completed without any involvement from any person who had ever worked with Scot.”

Pepperdine’s Special Education Advocacy Clinic took on the Millmans’ case and ensured that Scot could stay at the middle school he already attended. As the school made more resources available to him, Scot developed “compensating techniques.” “For the first time, he could learn and access the curriculum being delivered to him,” says Kim. “His grades and his self esteem skyrocketed, and he became a voracious reader, virtually unheard of for a severely dyslexic child. His grades consisted of mostly As and a few Bs. He was liked and admired by peers and teachers alike. He was, finally, a happy, successful student.”

The Cahills

When families come to the clinic, they are often frustrated with the school district and feel powerless to help their children succeed. “Up to the time that we started working with the clinic, we had never had legal representation,” explain Linda and Mike Cahill. The Cahill’s son Liam has a complex combination of disabilities, and they have worked year after year to get him placed in the right programs. “We knew we were in way over our heads and needed a competent attorney who could take some of the pressures off of us. We knew our rights, but didn't know how to implement them, so this was a true blessing for us.”

At the heart of the clinic is the mission to empower parents and families of children with disabilities with training. “We stress to parents that they are experts when it comes to their child’s needs, and as such they are key members of any educational team,” says Nidya Paredes (JD ’09), associate director of the clinic. “Their voice is important. We emphasize that our clinic is here to support them in their advocacy.”

As parents of children with special needs know too well, the fight for resources for their children is often an ongoing process. “The nature of the special education process is such that a child’s educational placement and related services are determined annually, and new conflicts or ones that were resolved last year can arise again in the new year,” continues Paredes. “Most parents cannot afford to have an attorney or advocate present with them at every IEP their child will have throughout the 15 plus years of their educational experience – so our goal is that after they’ve worked with our clinic, parents will feel equipped to handle the annual IEPs, meetings, and possible conflicts with skill and in the best interest of their child.”

Robert Manganelli, who spent 20 years advocating for his son, could not be more proud of him today. “Fighting for an appropriate IEP is about love, the power of parental love for their child. It was about doing what is right. It was about educating our son – who, although was, and is, brilliant – was different.”

To learn more visit Pepperdine’s Special Education Advocacy Clinic