Parents and Litigation: Insights from a Special Education Law Clinic

Article excerpt

When parents threaten to sue, it's time for a school to examine how well it is meeting the needs of special education students and their families, Mr. Curtis argues. His experiences with a cooperative project involving the School of Education and the School of Law at Seattle University helped him reach this insight.

PRIOR TO the mid-1970s, over one million children with disabilities were excluded from our nation's schools. In 1975, as a result of intense litigation and advocacy, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA, P.L. 94-142), now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), mandating that public schools provide a free and appropriate education for students with disabilities. There are now over six million of these students in our public schools - - well above 12% of the school population.1

Even given the federal mandate, many parents of children with disabilities are still not satisfied with the education being provided by the public schools and thus have continued to turn to the legal system for help.2 In response, many school professionals argue that litigation is unnecessary and is making the special education system even worse.

To explore whether continued litigation is justifiable, I and several colleagues from the School of Education at Seattle University participated in a special education law clinic. Much of what we learned surprised us, and our experiences gave us new insights into the issue of parents and litigation, as well as the state of our educational services for students with special needs.

The Collaborative Special Education Law Clinic

At the beginning of the new millennium, Seattle University acquired a law school located in close proximity to the juvenile courts. Naturally, the faculty of the new School of Law developed collaborative relationships with the court staff. Faculty members in the school's law clinic began training student attorneys in the art of defending young accused offenders in the juvenile criminal courts. At the same time, the law clinic began receiving referrals for cases involving parents of children with disabilities who, for a variety of reasons, were angry at the public school system and were demanding better services for their children.

The law school faculty members involved at the time had minimal experience with special education and knew little about disabilities, assessment methods, individualized education programs (IEPs), or the nuances of how the school system works. The law professors turned to the School of Education for help, and an innovative partnership was formed.

In the fall of 2000, members of the law and education faculties at Seattle University formed an interdisciplinary team to provide collaborative consultation and training to law students. A clinic was created to provide opportunities for the law students, in conjunction with the interdisciplinary faculty team, to deliver services to parents of students with special needs who were involved in special education disputes with school districts. The project was funded by a grant from the Washington State Governor's Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee. Referrals were received from numerous sources, including parent advocacy groups, health clinics, court systems, and other attorneys.

Education faculty members participating in the project included those from the programs of special education, school psychology, counseling, and educational administration. Team members included not only academicians but also experienced educators and clinicians who had much direct experience with children in the field. For example, I am a licensed clinical child and school psychologist with over 20 years of experience working directly with children with special needs. I have worked in both medical and school settings and am now the director of the graduate-training program in special education at Seattle University. …