Giving Students the Chance to Thrive

JasonBy Angelika Labno, CBF Administrative & Communications Coordinator

Jason, a nine-year-old boy diagnosed with autism, ADHD and significant emotional disabilities, was getting suspended nearly every day and was steps away from expulsion. School discipline reports described him as violent, noncompliant and unwilling to be helped. The boy that Equip for Equality (EFE) attorney Lee Robbins met, however, was kind, introduced her to his entire family, and showed her the treasures he was carrying around in his toy tool belt.

After negotiating with the school district, Lee assisted Jason’s family in placing him in a different school that provided him with an individualized Behavior Intervention Plan that addresses his social-emotional and behavioral concerns. The school welcomed him and developed a tailored behavior incentives program used at home and in school, complete with behavior reminder badges that he could wear.

Now, Jason is doing much better in school. Jason’s mom, for instance, remembers observing Jason in swimming class one day. Watching him participate and splash along happily, she felt, for the first time, like Jason belonged.

For children like Jason with disabilities, the opportunity to achieve success in school often depends on receiving appropriate special education services. Unfortunately, many parents aren’t aware of what their rights are, what to ask for, or what their child is entitled to.

The Special Education Clinic at Equip for Equality, one of the many impactful programs you are supporting through the Investing in Justice Campaign, is a valuable resource for families, particularly its Special Education Helpline. The helpline took in over 1,300 calls in the last year from parents across the state looking for advice and information, and taught many how to advocate on behalf of their children.

Every student who qualifies for special education services is entitled to an IEP (Individualized Education Program), which outlines the student’s educational placement, goals for the year, and the additional supports the child will need in order to succeed. Types of support can range from more time on a test to a full-time aide. IEPs are the focal point of the Clinic.

When an IEP is not working out or when there isn’t one in place EFE steps in. CBF Equal Justice Works Fellow Lee Robbins (read more about her fantastic work) is an EFE staff attorney who focuses on clients with mental health needs within the Clinic.

So many of my clients are young children who simply need to be understood and seen for who they are, as opposed to a problem, said Lee. Once they receive an education that is committed to providing them with the supports that they require, they are able to thrive.

A significant issue lies in government funding cuts that impact the services children need to receive an appropriate education. Nonetheless, the clinic’s impact continues to grow. As the clinic’s Vice President Olga Pribyl notes, in the eight years since the program’s inception, the number of families served on an annual basis has tripled. This is in large part due to the impressive number of pro bono partners who have stepped up in this cause.

Olga, who has been with the clinic since its launch, considers the greatest progress made in this area of work to be the integration of students with disabilities alongside their neighborhood friends at school and in the community. With an appropriate education, students with disabilities can and have realized dreams of being fully participating members of the community, having jobs, and living independently.

Attitudes around school discipline continue to present challenges where children are disciplined for actions related to their disability or get kicked out of school without the school addressing underlying special education needs. Olga would like to see special education needs addressed in an individualized, case-by-case manner so that children can receive a meaningful education as required by law.

It really should be, €˜What should we do for Johnny who has autism that impacts his education in these ways?’ and not €˜This is what we do for all students with autism.’