My goal is to empower parents of children with disabilities to achieve the educational services to which they are legally entitled. However, the process of fighting the school district for the services your child needs can be stressful and upsetting. I can be your formal representative when dealing with the school district to take some of the stress and worry out of the process. From the initial IEP meeting to appealing a due process hearing, I can be by your side during each stage of the process to ensure you understand each decision you must make, and that your legal rights are being fully upheld.
The special education process typically begins when a parent or teacher notice some delays or challenges to a child’s learning process. The child is then tested by the school district to see if they have a disability that would qualify them for special education and or accommodations. If they have such a disability, an IEP or 504 plan is developed. Parents, teachers, and the school district work as a team to develop the plan. This process in intended to be collaborative and non-adversarial.
Unfortunately, the process often turns adversarial when the parent and the school district do not agree about the child’s specific needs. Sometimes, the disagreement concerns whether the child qualifies for special services. Or else, the school district doesn’t have a program the parent believes the child needs. School districts correctly assume that most parents don’t know special education laws or their children’s rights, so they can usually win when the parent has not sought representation. This is when it’s time to consult an attorney. You should hire a special education attorney as soon as the school district decides it is going to fight you on the services you want for your child.
While advocates provide wonderful services, they are limited in their abilities. Advocates can help you interpret testing results, prepare for an IEP meeting, and accompany you to the meeting. However, this is where the advocate services must end, as anything further might be considered the unauthorized practice of law. Activities such as providing legal advice, assisting you with the preparation of a due process complaint, or appearing on your behalf at a hearing require a license to practice law, and therefore are activities that advocates cannot do.
People often hire advocates for the simple reason that they’re less expensive than lawyers. While many advocates receive excellent training or have substantial experience from being in the field of education, lawyers often have knowledge that you or even the best advocate won’t have. Beyond special education laws, lawyers understand legal procedure and evidence rules, have knowledge of the hearing officers and judges, have courtroom experience, know how to conduct direct and cross-examination of witnesses, know how to obtain critical documents through discovery and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), are proficient at locating witnesses and, perhaps most importantly, know how to make “the record” for appeal (if the case goes beyond a due process hearing). In addition, unlike lawyers, advocates are not required to take mandatory continuing legal education so they are informed on the latest laws and cases in special education.
And while attorneys are usually more expensive than advocates, attorney’s fees are recoverable in special education cases, while advocate’s fees are not. In other words, if you succeed in a special education case with an attorney, you may get your money back. This is never the case with an advocate.