Do You Need a Special Education Attorney?

You know when your child with special needs isn’t receiving the education that is right for him. Maybe he’s struggling in a class that’s not a good fit. Perhaps he’s not receiving the support and services he’s entitled to outside of class. He might even be in the wrong school altogether. But going up against a school district and the New York State Education Department to fight for your child can be a daunting task for any parent. That’s where special education attorneys come in. They can help you understand your child’s rights, fight for his free and appropriate education, reach an agreement with your school, or get him into a new one. In fact, a special education attorney can make all the difference.

Why You Might Need a Special Education Attorney 

The special education system in New York is complex. Some attorneys claim school districts don’t know which services are required for students with special needs, while others say schools are deliberately not providing the services these kids deserve. Laura Adler-Greene, an associate attorney at the law offices of Andrew Cohen in Garden City, says she believes district leaders do know the law. If they don’t, they have law firms to inform them.

On the other hand, many parents get stuck on the difference between an appropriate education and the best education their child can receive, says Gerald Raymond, a managing partner at Tully Rinckey PLLC in Syracuse. If parents have their child evaluated by someone outside the district, they could walk into a planning meeting for their child’s services with an idea that’s completely different from what school representatives are prepared to offer. In that case, conflict arises not because school authorities don’t know what they’re meant to provide, but because parents have a different idea.

How a Lawyer Can Help Your Child

Often a lawyer is necessary to get your school district to do what it must, says Bernard A. Krooks, founding partner of Littman Krooks LLP and head of its special needs department. A lawyer can help you get your child into a different type of class, receive the right services as dictated by her Individualized Education Program, or transfer to a different type of school. A lawyer can also help when your student has behavioral challenges, and help your student avoid the school-to-prison pipeline—a trend in which students with special needs are funneled out of public schools and into the criminal justice system. The American Civil Liberties Union reports that students with disabilities are disproportionately represented in the pipeline because of schools’ inadequate special education resources and a reliance on zero tolerance policies.

Once you’ve retained a lawyer, she can be as involved in your family’s progress as you want. Your attorney can attend IEP, Committee on Special Education, or annual review meetings with you or call for an impartial hearing or mediation. In some cases, a lawyer will take a family’s case all the way to federal court.

Raymond says having an attorney can make a big difference in your child’s well-being. In one case, after a student fell behind in school when the district took his 1-to-1 aide away, Raymond’s firm provided the CSE with documentation as to why the child needed an aide—and got the aide restored to the child. Having an aide can significantly increase a child’s well-being, performance in school, and safety.

Laura Davis, director of the Special Education Unit at New York Legal Assistance Group, says sometimes the impact of a lawyer might not look like much to an untrained eye, but it can mean the world to parents.

“I’m working with a family whose child spent four years in an inappropriate six-one-one [six students, one teacher, and one side] class in a public school, and is now at Gersh [Academy],” Davis says. “[The mother says] her child can now look at her, sit in a chair for a couple of minutes at a time, wave goodbye. This is all so meaningful to the parent. To somebody else it might look like nothing, but to her, her eight-year-old child is now, for the first time, making progress.”

Finding an Attorney

In his experience, the special needs community is a connected, supportive one, Krooks says. Information, such as lawyer recommendations, tends to get passed around quickly. “You can also use Facebook, discussion and support groups, or simply search online,” he adds. But at the end of the day, Krooks says, it’s not necessarily that difficult to find someone who has the knowledge needed—though it may be a challenge to find a good match.