Pro Bono Opportunities: Special Education Team
The Special Education team assists Texas students with disabilities in maximizing their opportunities to learn and grow in school by ensuring that they receive all of the education services and supports that they need in the least-restrictive settings with their non-disabled peers. For this to be a reality for the more than 400,000 students in Texas eligible for special education services, school districts are legally required to fully implement the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Parents of students with disabilities must know and exercise their rights, and the rights of their children. The attorneys and advocates assigned to the Special Education Team make this a reality by:
- Helping to establish and maintain integrated classrooms where students with disabilities learn alongside students without disabilities
- Assisting students with disabilities in receiving the assistive technology and training required for their success in school
- Ensuring that students are not disciplined, restrained or secluded because of a disability
- Assisting students in receiving the transition services needed to prepare for life after school
- Raising awareness among parents, advocates and policy makers so they have all the legal information they need to ensure the successful education of students with disabilities
Pro Bono Opportunities with the Special Education Team
The special education team and non-attorney advocates specialize in assisting students with disabilities and their parents in disputes with school districts. Parents often need assistance advocating for assistive technology such as communication devices or related services such as nursing services, speech therapy, physical therapy, or counseling. Additionally, schools often try to expel, remove or segregate students with disabilities without providing accommodations or behavior support services that could allow the student to be successful.
Types of Special Education Pro Bono Cases Available
Special education advocacy is a meaningful way to assist students and their families in obtain valuable educational and related services that make the difference in whether a person with a disability finishes school, acquires independent living skills, and finds competitive employment as an adult. Opportunities can appeal to attorneys from transactional and litigation backgrounds. Non litigation opportunities include reviewing records and advocating for student and parent at a school-based meeting. Litigation opportunities include administrative hearings and federal court practice, with opportunities for depositions as well as direct and cross examination of expert witnesses, such as school psychologists.
The most common advocacy opportunities in special education are:
Individual Education Program (IEP) Meeting Advocacy
Federal special education laws provide parents significant due process rights, as voting members of a committee that designs an individualized education program for their child. The committees make important decisions about services, placement, and discipline. Committees can also agree to provide compensatory education services for past failures. Unfortunately, parents are often overwhelmed by the process, outnumbered and intimidated by school staff, and obtain far better services when they are accompanied to these meetings by an attorney. A pro bono attorney’s mere attendance at the meeting often improves services for a student.
Due Process Hearing Representation
Parents may file a request a due process hearing to resolve disagreement from IEP meeting or other special education dispute. Thankfully, these administrative hearings provide relatively tight timeframes that typically limit a pro bono attorney’s commitment to months, rather than years. Still, the practice includes discovery, motion practice and rather formal 2-3 day hearings that must be exhausted before a party can go to federal court. As in other areas of litigation, a high percentage of requests for due process hearings are resolved by informal settlement negotiation with opposing counsel or mediation. In almost 30% of cases that go to hearing, parents represent themselves pro se, while school districts are always represented by counsel. Not surprisingly, parents who are represented by counsel are far more likely to obtain relief at hearing.
Texas Education Agency (TEA) Complaints
State complaints allow parents an easy and efficient way to seek an opinion from TEA whenever they believe a special education law has been violated. TEA investigates and rules on a written complaint in just 60 days, based only on the written complaint and the records submitted in response by the school district. Assisting a parent in drafting a well written complaint can resolve many disputes in a timely manner, especially when the violations are clear and expert testimony is not needed.
Representation in Mediation
Schools and parents can choose to participate in voluntary mediation to resolve special education disputes. TEA trains the mediators and pays for their services. Most mediators also serve as special education hearing officers and are knowledgeable about the law. Still students and parents who are not represented in mediation often complain that they were not fully aware of what they gave up as part of mediated agreement, so lawyers can offer a valuable service to equalize the playing field in mediation.
Representation in Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) Complaints
An increasing number of students with less significant disabilities are served under 504 programs, instead of special education programs. OCR Complaints provide students and parents a way to resolve disputes for youth served by 504 programs. Common disability discrimination disputes involve exclusion from athletic programs and other extracurricular activities.
Disability Rights Texas would be happy to provide training on handling Special Education cases to any attorneys interested in pro bono special education representation. Additionally, we can provide ongoing support and assistance on cases ranging from technical support to co-counseling depending on the need and desire of the pro bono attorney handling the case.
If you are interested in becoming a DRTx Pro Bono Volunteer Attorney for the Education Team in or scheduling a CLE for your office, firm, or corporate law department, please contact Cicely Reid, Pro Bono Coordinator, in one of the following ways: