Mike, an 18 year old high school senior, was found on campus with marijuana and a knife, weeks before graduation. His school’s administration responded with an expulsion hearing, as well as a criminal charge in district court. Mike is a bright student who had a full scholarship to college for the fall. He was struggling with some undiagnosed mental health issues and was self-medicating with marijuana. He had been carrying the knife in his backpack for protection because he was mugged one day outside of school earlier in the year. EdLaw worked with Mike's defense attorney to protect Mike's interests in his court case, while engaging his school in a dialogue at the expulsion hearing. The EdLaw attorney reviewed Mike's records and worked with him to get letters of support from his employer. EdLaw also worked with Mike to set up an appointment to see his doctor to get professional mental health treatment. Through EdLaw's advocacy, the school principal agreed not to expel Mike, but rather impose a shorter suspension. He was able to get his diploma and keep his scholarship. Today Mike is studying hard in his freshman year at college, with plans to one day become a lawyer.
Tom is a fifteen year old student with significant special needs, who was suspended from school for months without any of his required special education services. His court-appointed attorney contacted EdLaw to help get him back in school. EdLaw reviewed Tom’s records and found that he had been struggling for years because he did not to have the appropriate services in his education plan. To make matters worse, Tom was not receiving his special education documents in the language of the home, as is required by law. This prevented Tom’s guardian from being able to fully understand what was happening to him and advocate as needed. EdLaw filed a hearing request with the Bureau of Special Education Appeals, the administrative law body that hears disputes between families and school districts. Within a few days of filing the hearing request, the school district agreed to place Tom in an out-of-district special education day school. Tom’s increased access to education has supported his growth and these days he looks forward to attending school.
Franklin never thought he was smart—at least, that is what his school led him to believe. Misdiagnosed with an intellectual disability at a young age, the school placed Franklin in classes with cognitively-challenged students. As he entered his teen years, he began to check out, fed up with not fitting in with his classmates and being bullied and ridiculed; he felt the need to prove his worth by acting out. Worried that her son’s minor misbehaviors would grow from innocuous misconduct to something that could land him in court, his mother sought help. Thus, at age 16, Franklin was referred to the EdLaw Project.
We reached out to our Pro Bono Panel and Michael Pappone, a partner at Goodwin who had received EdLaw’s education advocacy training, volunteered to represent Franklin (with EdLaw’s support). With Michael’s involvement, Franklin’s situation at school quickly began to turn around. An independent evaluation revealed that Franklin was struggling in school not because of an intellectual disability, but rather because of dyslexia – which had remained unidentified and unaddressed in Franklin for years. With this new information, Michael advocated for the school district to place Franklin in a class intended for students with dyslexia, as well as provide after-school reading lessons for Franklin.
However, it soon became apparent that the accommodations were insufficient to mitigate the years of academic neglect he experienced. Michael’s request for Franklin’s placement in a private school that specialized in language-based learning disabilities was denied, leading Michael to file for a hearing at the Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA). In response, the school finally agreed to the placement request, and Franklin is now at a school geared to meet his specific needs and receives supplementary tutoring to help bridge the gaps in his education. As Franklin told the BSEA during settlement discussions, he used to think he wasn’t very smart; not until somebody he respected (Michael) finally told him that he was in fact smart did he start believing it and begin dreaming about his future. Now, Franklin has plans to graduate from high school, enlist in the military, and become an engineer.
For Christopher, going to middle school was a daily struggle. Intelligent, articulate, charming and a love for science, he dreamed about becoming a nuclear physicist. But with significant anxiety about academic tasks and lacking the skills to manage his emotions in school, Chris needed extra support.
A vicious cycle was created: Chris would act out to mask his anxiety, but instead of providing him the support he needed, the school would react by repeatedly sending him out of the classroom and suspending him from school, which led to Chris falling farther behind, and thus acting out more. Eventually it reached a point where the school filed a Child Requiring Assistance (CRA) petition against Chris in Juvenile Court. Chris’s court-appointed lawyer turned to EdLaw for help. EdLaw helped Chris’s lawyer advocate for an evaluation that finally uncovered the emotional disability at the root of Chris’s behaviors. Unfortunately, the school neglected to adhere to federal and state laws prohibiting schools from repeatedly suspending students for behavior that is caused by a disability, and continued to suspend Chris for longer and longer periods of time.
During one month, Chris spent nearly every day either suspended or sent home early from school. EdLaw appealed to the state Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA) to challenge the suspensions. Finding that the school had violated the law by repeatedly suspending him, Chris received compensatory services and EdLaw helped him obtain a new school placement with the necessary social-emotional support. Since his placement in a new school, Chris’s mother reports that he has been thriving.
Sean, a young man with an intellectual disability, was 18 when he was sentenced to the House of Correction. When the EdLaw Project began working with him two years later, it was clear he had been abandoned by both the system and his school district—despite having an IEP (Individualized Education Program) that called for intensive educational and counseling services; he had not received any education in jail.
As a result of EdLaw’s initial advocacy, he began attending classes in the House of Correction and received extra tutoring to help prepare him for passing the two remaining MCAS exams needed to qualify to receive his high school diploma. While he subsequently passed both and thereby met the necessary requirements to graduate, he had not been prepared for employment, post-secondary living, or further education as is required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004). At EdLaw’s advice, Sean has refused his diploma for now, thus keeping his school district accountable to provide more services.
EdLaw approached Sean’s case from two different angles: they simultaneously advocated for ways to bring more services into the prison while also searching for a way to get Sean released into a more appropriate setting for someone with his disabilities. Despite the fact that Sean is a client of the Department of Developmental Services (DDS), they seldom provide housing to clients until they turn 22. This meant that without an alternative, Sean would have to remain in prison until he was 22. EdLaw was able to convince DDS to find a group home for Sean and he was subsequently released last December right before his 21st birthday. He is thriving at the group home, and receiving vocational training every day in addition to tutoring provided by his school district in writing, mathematics, and computer skills. EdLaw is continuing to work with Sean to make sure he gets the support he needs so that he has an opportunity to lead a happy and healthy life.
Ben enjoys working with his hands and helping his dad, an auto mechanic, fix up old equipment. In spite of an intellectual disability, thanks to very specialized attention in elementary and middle school, he was able to remain in mainstream classes. In high school things changed. He was overwhelmed by the size of the school, the complexities of social interactions, and the academic expectations. The school ignored his mother’s concerns and skipped his required three-year special education reevaluation. When the police got involved in an incident in which Ben became upset due to taunting by another student, he found himself suspended from school and possibly facing criminal charges.
The family reached out to the EdLaw Project for help with both situations. EdLaw connected the family to a delinquency attorney who was able to get the charges dismissed; on the school front, EdLaw requested an immediate reevaluation, during which Ben was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. The school removed the disciplinary infraction from his student record and he is currently attending a vocational school program for students with special needs. He loves his new school and is absolutely blossoming; in fact, his teacher reports that Ben is funny and a pleasure to have in class. This complete turnaround in both Ben’s school and court situation happened within a short space of six months, and is thanks to the innovative partnership between YAD and EdLaw.