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DLA Piper's Signature Projects: Partnerships that Make a Difference

By Matthew J. Iverson


Alex[1] grabbed at his mother and sobbed uncontrollably. They were on their way to visit his new school for the first time, and Alex was terrified. He wanted to stay at home with his mother and alternated between clutching at her desperately and pounding his fists against her side as she struggled to haul him up the subway steps. Although part of her wanted to give in and keep him at home with her, she persevered because she knew that, for her son, letting go of her was an important step in Alex's path to adulthood. In many ways this was a typical battle, fought in some form between countless parents and countless children. Except that Alex was 13 years old.

The Education Rights Project began with a telephone call. I had attended a training session at DLA Piper's Boston office conducted by Massachusetts Advocates for Children (MAC), a nonprofit children's advocacy organization with a 40-year history of advancing the welfare of low-income children. The session was designed to familiarize attorneys with the basics of special education dispute resolution in the hopes that they would agree to help one of the many low-income parents that form MAC's client base. Shortly after that training, Tom Mela, the director of MAC's Children's Law Support Project, called to ask if I could help with Alex's case.


Some context is necessary. The provision of special education services to children with disabilities in the United States is governed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).[2] The IDEA requires that local school districts provide a "free and appropriate education" (FAPE) to all students with disabilities in their jurisdiction. What exactly constitutes a "free and appropriate education" is a matter of some debate, as its requirements span several pages of federal regulations, and the phrase's meaning has been interpreted and reinterpreted by virtually every court in the country. Moreover, parents (who tend to focus on the requirement that their child's education be "appropriate") seldom interpret FAPE in the same manner as school districts (which tend to fixate on the requirement that they provide educational services for "free"). As a result, parents and school districts often fail to see eye-to-eye regarding the law's requirements.


In theory, and often in practice, disputes regarding a student's services are worked out in an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) team process. The IEP team consists of a student's teachers and other educators, school administrators, parents, and, in some cases, social service representatives. These team members are supposed to determine by consensus what services are appropriate. If this does not happen, parents must negotiate a sometimes Byzantine administrative appeals process to enforce their rights. Needless to say, if the parents of a student with a disability cannot afford an attorney or advocate, cannot speak English, or suffer from disabilities of their own, a student can easily slip through the cracks. Such was the case with Alex.


Alex was 13 years old but functioned at a first-grade level. He was bipolar, had low cognitive functioning, and suffered from a host of other disabilities, including post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit disorder. He had been institutionalized seven times, usually at the instigation of school officials unable to control his behavior. The most shocking aspect of Alex's case, however, was that he had not attended school in months. At his last placement, a school for children with disabilities, Alex's violent outbursts ultimately triggered his seventh commitment, and the school indicated that he could not return. When Alex was finally released from the hospital, the school district attempted to place him in a second day school for disabled students. That school refused to accept him, however, after Alex threw his shoe through an office window during his entrance evaluation.


Ever since this incident, Alex had stayed at home. None of the standard placement schools would take him, and the constituent members of Alex's IEP team were at loggerheads as to what to do next. While it was abundantly clear by this point that Alex needed a residential educational placement with psychiatric support to stabilize him, adjust his medications, and get him to the point where he could actually start to learn again, neither the school district nor the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (which provided stabilization services to Alex's family and participated on his IEP team) were willing to fund it. The social service agency argued that it was the school district's responsibility to fund the placement because without it Alex could not attend school, while the school district argued that it was the social service agency's responsibility to pay for residential services because, when properly stabilized at home, Alex was capable of attending school. The result was a deadlock. Alex's mother, who spoke only Spanish and grappled with disabilities of her own, was so bewildered by the bureaucratic jousting that she could not comprehend what was happening to her son, let alone advocate on his behalf. Alex had fallen through a crack in the system.


MAC was created to solve precisely this type of problem. Founded four decades ago as the Task Force on Children Out of School, MAC issued an investigative report in 1970 on the exclusion of children from public schools in Boston. That report led to the enactment two years later of chapter 766, Massachusetts's ground-breaking law guaranteeing education for children with disabilities. It also led to the Massachusetts Bilingual Education Act, the first such law in the nation. During the next two decades, MAC's legislative and administrative advocacy produced reforms in child mental health, vocational education, lead poisoning prevention, student retention policies, and child nutrition. MAC also sued successfully to force the Boston Public Schools to live up to its special education obligations. MAC's mission, however, is to "change conditions for many, while also helping one child at a time." In furtherance of this mission, MAC's attorneys step in, either directly or by assisting volunteer attorneys in private practice, to assist children, like Alex, whom the system has failed to help. Which is why Tom Mela called me.


Although it took several months of effort (and I still, on occasion, have to intervene when some aspect of Alex's education goes awry), DLA Piper was eventually able to secure him a placement at a local residential school with on-site psychiatric and medical services. After six months of phenomenal attention and care by the school staff, a newly stabilized Alex was able to transition back to living at home. He now attends a vocational day school and is learning both a trade and the skills he will eventually need to function outside the home.


A year later, when DLA Piper's Boston office was searching for a Signature Project, we quickly recognized that a partnership with MAC was an obvious choice. DLA Piper operates several large-scale Signature Projects as part of DLA Piper's extensive commitment to pro bono.[3] The Signature Project model harnesses the firm's resources to tackle systemic issues within communities. Teams of firm attorneys work with local nonprofit organizations to develop multifaceted strategies to address and solve community problems. With many dozens of attorneys working on matters coupled with growing experience in an area of law, the firm's impact can grow exponentially.


Currently, several DLA Piper offices are engaged in Signature Projects encompassing a variety of legal practices:


  • The San Diego office has a project assisting veterans in obtaining medical and disability benefits, helping homeless veterans achieve a fresh start, and providing low-income veteran entrepreneurs with corporate governance advice and support.
  • The Atlanta office works with victims of domestic violence to obtain protective orders against their abusers.
  • In Northern Virginia, attorneys assist abused immigrant women to secure legal status in the United States.
  • In Washington, D.C., the office works with the Access to Justice Commission on an in-depth report on the legal needs of disadvantaged people, including solutions for how the city can work to meet its residents' legal needs.
  • The firm also has a national Signature Project assisting Hurricane Katrina survivors whose homes were destroyed and who need assistance establishing ownership of the property so they can rebuild.

As an established public service organization with an existing infrastructure and vast experience with special education law and advocacy, MAC made an ideal Signature Project partner for our Boston office. Several other DLA attorneys had already begun working with MAC by this point, and the ties between our organizations were substantial. We did have to make some adjustments, however. MAC's prior experience partnering with private attorneys had focused on individual advocacy for children like Alex. This required negotiation and, occasionally, administrative legal action in a context that was, at least superficially, more familiar to a litigator than a transactional attorney. To involve attorneys from the office's real estate and corporate departments, we created new joint strategic projects that harnessed DLA Piper's legal research, drafting, and contractual expertise to support MAC's higher level initiatives.


I should note that our Boston office's foray into special education work is not the firm's first pro bono project involving education. The firm has several Signature Projects and other projects focused on education and children. In New York, attorneys provide extensive assistance to students in a program aimed at improving educational outcomes for low-income students. In conjunction with firm client PricewaterhouseCoopers, DLA Piper attorneys represent more than two dozen Head Start programs throughout the city, providing them with transactional, financial, employment, real estate, and litigation services. Attorneys also represent children in disciplinary and special education hearings, focusing on cases involving private placement reimbursement.


DLA Piper's Chicago office recently kicked off an education project providing general counsel support to Head Start programs across the city while also representing children with disabilities in special education proceedings. The Washington, D.C., office has also explored ways to repair the system for resolving special education disputes. The firm expects to expand this nationwide commitment in the future. DLA Piper's Baltimore office adopted two local schools, a public charter school and an innovation school, providing the families with legal and educational support.


Matthew J. Iverson is an associate in the Boston office of DLA Piper LLP (US). He specializes in commercial and land-use litigation and manages the Education Rights Project.


 

  1. Alex is a pseudonym.
  2. 20 U.S.C. 1400 et seq.
  3. The Signature Project model has received significant attention within the legal community. Last year, DLA Piper received the American Bar Association's Pro Bono Publico Award, given annually to a firm that has made an outstanding commitment to pro bono. The Signature Project model was singled out as the reason the firm was granted the award.

 
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