Family Advocacy Clinic succeeds in yearlong struggle for student’s special education rights.
Students from Fordham Law’s Family Advocacy Clinic recently secured a Brooklyn high school student access to specialized education, following two semesters of advocacy on the student’s behalf.
Under the guidance of Professor Leah Hill, the clinic’s students worked to challenge the Department of Education regarding the quality of instruction received by the student at a Brooklyn public school.
“The student was twelve years old when we first consulted with him,” said Hill. “At the time, even though he had been identified as having a learning disability, he was not receiving the services he needed to succeed in school.”
According to Hill, the student had difficulty reading, which led to a downward behavioral spiral, resulting in his frequent ejection from class and multiple suspensions. (The clinic had represented two of the student’s siblings in the past, both of whom also had learning disabilities.) Working in conjunction with Fordham social work student Allison Griffith, the clinic set to work securing proper evaluations of the student’s needs, then, with that information in hand, attempted to secure the proper support from the Department of Education.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, public schools are compelled to provide special-needs students with personalized education programs that take into account their specific disabilities. In cases in which a school cannot implement such a program, the IDEA compels it to offer students placement in a private school.
“The child was in school and for years his Individualized Education Program had not been implemented the way it was supposed to have been,” said Fordham Law student Colin Bereth ’17, who worked this past semester in the clinic. “We had to create our theory of the case and put evidence together so that we could be successful for this child.”
The Family Advocacy Clinic prepared a sophisticated challenge to the Department of Education, which included extensive evidence, witnesses, and a thorough theory of the case. However, when it came time to present that evidence before a hearing officer, the clinic students were in for a surprise. The first hearing appearance involved vigorous preliminary arguments on whether the DOE failed to meet the child’s needs. Within a week after the initial appearance, the DOE changed their position.
“After what we had heard was a very long time leading up to this hearing,” said Joshua Demopoulos ‘17, another student in the clinic, “we went in and the Department of Education really didn’t have much.”
Having reviewed the evidence the clinic students were planning to submit, the DOE sought to delay the hearing in order to begin settlement talks. The clinic students’ advocacy had led to the department backing down from pursuing the case any farther.
Following a year in juridical limbo, the clinic’s client suddenly secured the right to attend a private school. This did not, however, spell the end of the clinic’s work.
“For the remainder of the semester our focus shifted from a litigation footing to a services and compliance sort of footing,” said Demopoulos. “The DOE had said that it basically agreed that the student should go to a different school. But finding that school is a long process.”
In addition to finding an appropriate school for their client, the clinic’s students had to work with multiple government agencies to figure out how to arrange transportation for the student and how to secure tutoring so that he could make up for the schooling he had missed while the case was pending. The student is now doing well in school: he has garnered praise from teachers, joined the varsity basketball team, and reported that he is very happy with his new school.
For Bereth and Demopoulos, their work with the clinic touched on themes related to their past professional experiences. Bereth had worked as a high school teacher prior to attending Fordham, and Demopoulos had worked briefly in childhood education. This background gave them unique perspectives on the scope and importance of the clinic’s work.
“We have a particular passion for the work that we’re doing,” said Bereth. “Areas that are poverty-stricken don’t often have the resources to help students in this way; there are these structural issues. That was the surprising thing to me, and I think that’s what drove some of us as well.”
Both Bereth and Demopoulos, informed in part by their work with the Family Advocacy Clinic, hope to continue to focus on such issues after graduation.
“When I reflect on why I entered law school, it’s because I wanted to help people. I’m just trying to stay true to that,” said Demopoulos.