What To Do If There Is No Local Special Education Attorney
Suppose you live in a remote area of your state. Your 15-year-old child has severe autism and you know that his placement is not appropriate. He has not received speech services all year and his behaviors, both at home and at school are getting worse. The school district simply ignores your pleas for services and your letters. Your child has been restrained several times this year. You haven’t received a progress report on goals all year and your child’s goals are the same as last year. You know that there are blatant violations of the law and that the school district has essentially given up on your son.
You’d like to hire an attorney. Yet, the nearest law firm specializing in education law is four hours away.
Finding a good special education attorney can be a challenge, particularly in rural areas. But just because a special education attorney does not practice in your vicinity does not mean that you have no recourse or remedies. You will just need to be determined and seek out alternative, creative solutions.
Time Is Ticking
Children have a limited window of opportunity to receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (“IDEIA”) and each year your child goes without appropriate services means that he or she will regress and fall further behind.
School districts should all be held to IDEA compliance, whether they are rural, urban or suburban school districts. The IDEA applies in equal force to every school district in the United States. Thus, do not give up and keep doing research.
The World Is A Smaller Place
Long distances should not preclude appropriate representation. Today, much of special education advocacy takes place with letters, emails, and phone calls and physical presence is not generally necessary. An attorney can participate in an IEP meeting via phone or even video conference. If you and the attorney decide to file for an impartial hearing, the attorney will need to be present for the hearing, but you should be able to request consecutive days of hearing, as the law actually requires this.
Here are some steps you can take to find an attorney or advocate who can work with you to help your child with special needs:
1. Contact an established attorney in nearest metropolitan area.
Find the nearest law firm you can find specializing in special education. When you call, ask about referrals to anyone closer who’s an expert in special education.
2. Ask for a phone consultation if there is no one closer.
If there is no attorney closer, ask for a phone or video conference consultation. Provide all the records you can, including your child’s last two IEPs and other records in advance of the consultation. Include the letters you have written to the school district. Tell the attorney about your situation and give as much detail as possible.
3. Ask whether the firm would be willing to work on your case despite distance.
Make sure the attorney is willing to participate in meetings via phone or video conference and travel to a hearing if needed. Impartial hearing officers travel all over the state in many cases to conduct impartial hearings. There is no reason that attorneys cannot do the same. Most of all make sure the attorney is licensed in your state to practice law and has expertise in special education and understands your goals. Make sure you feel comfortable with him or her. If you do, the distance is less important than the appropriate representation.
4. Discuss retainer and how you will handle travel costs.
Make sure you discuss in advance how the attorney will handle travel costs. Attorneys must bill for their time, so you cannot expect them to travel for free. But you may be able to ask for a reduced billing rate for travel. If they attorney has other clients in your area, ask if he or she can arrange meetings or hearings at the same time so travel costs to individual clients will be less. Keep in mind that special education representation is expensive. But the costs of accepting a legally deficient and inappropriate IEP are much higher. Thus, even if it costs a little more to have a good, long distance attorney, it will be worth it.
5. Consider A Special Education Advocate
If you cannot find an attorney or law firm who is willing to take your case, ask about a local special education advocate. Many advocates know the process very well and are effective in helping parents, at least as an initial first step, obtain appropriate special education services for their children.
Be relentless and keep trying to find appropriate representation. Your child’s education is at stake. Eventually, you will find an attorney or advocate you can work with. Also, in the meantime talk to other parents about their experiences and begin to organize. Educate yourselves and become vocal. Form a Special Education PTA and approach your Superintendent and Board of Education about common requests and systematic violations. You also may contact your State Department of Education and ask for technical assistance in filing a state complaint.
Marion M. Walsh, Esq., is an attorney with Littman Krooks LLP who focuses her practice on special and general education advocacy. Marion has worked in education law for almost 15 years and has been an advocate for children in many capacities.