Legal Angel on Their Side – Legal Aid Helps Parents Advocate for Students with Disabilities

Students with Disabilities
Judge Dan Hinde

Our 11-year-old client – let’s call her Issa – is one of the many of Minnesota students whose schooling suffered due to the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown orders in March 2020. With neurological differences, Issa processes information and understands others’ perspectives in ways that are not typical. Predictable routine is essential for her to feel safe and succeed in the school setting.

The pandemic and changes in school routine triggered symptoms of depression and anxiety for Issa. Her mother – let’s call her Anna – was suddenly juggling the needs of three children at home, and saw her daughter struggling with less support from the school.

“She wasn’t understanding her classwork,” Anna said. “My plan had been to talk during the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting about how it seemed that she had been regressing and needed more help.”

Unfortunately, there was no IEP meeting. The school failed to reschedule after the lockdown and Issa received no special education services for two months. She fell two grades behind. The school eventually offered minimal services. Anna rejected the school’s proposal and filed a formal complaint with the Office of Administrative Hearings.

Anna then called the Minnesota Disability Law Center (MDLC) for assistance preparing for the due process hearing. Joshua Ladd, Staff Attorney with the MDLC, stepped in to advocate for Issa.

“When the school realized the MDLC was involved, they started to listen to me and negotiate,” said Anna. “Before that, they made it seem like we were asking for the moon. Joshua and Issa’s therapist helped me realize that was not the case. We were working in the best interest of our own child.”

Ladd worked with the school district’s attorney, negotiating compensation for missing services and an updated IEP. They came to an agreement, avoiding the need for a due process hearing.

“Sometimes, school districts think a student is doing well enough and are reluctant to provide essential services,” says Ladd. “Issa needs those services to keep her education accessible, and through negotiation, the school district eventually agreed.”

The next step was to determine hours and delivery of compensatory services. Ladd and the MDLC try to balance each party’s voice in finding a solution, with an emphasis on honoring the student’s voice as they determine appropriate services.

“There are ways to get each party what they want,” Ladd says. “There’s a way to translate the concept of ‘comprehensive services’ into something that the kid might find more enjoyable. It’s just about finding that balance.”

Ensuring that parents fully understand the options available to them is part of Ladd’s responsibility in providing legal support to families with children with disabilities. When parents are aware of their rights and the obligation of the school to provide appropriate educational services, they become stronger advocates for their children. In Issa’s case, she received an updated IEP and compensatory services during the summer.

“Attorneys are able to help parents make good decisions by being clear about the law, being clear about the school’s offer, and reminding parents about the bottom line,” says Ladd. “When parents have clarity, they’re able to accept or reject an offer with confidence.”

With the correct package of services, Issa was able to close the academic gap between herself and her peers over the summer. She is happier, more relaxed, and ready to start the 2021-2022 school year on track.

“I felt like Joshua had a lot of compassion and insight into Issa’s needs,” says Anna. “He understands that children with disabilities deserve to live and learn in the setting they choose. When he came on the scene, I felt like I had a legal angel on my side.”

Cate Cavalier

Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid provides free civil legal advice and representation to Minnesotans who cannot afford an attorney. Legal Aid serves people with low incomes in 20 counties and people with disabilities statewide.

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