Navigating the special education system can be overwhelming, even for a trained advocate. Professor Elizabeth Schiltz knows that firsthand, as the mother of a son with Down syndrome and autism. More than two decades ago, her third child’s diagnosis helped inspire her to leave her job at a big firm and embark on a new career teaching the law. Her experiences have informed her academic research in disability law and spurred her to help establish the Disability Justice Resource Center, a website for lawyers and law students working on disability rights issues. But when she learned how woefully underserved the area of special education representation is, she saw an opportunity for St. Thomas Law to help. There are more than 150,000 children between the ages of 0 and 21 who receive special education services in Minnesota, according to the state. But according to Andrea Jepsen ’06 J.D. , who practiced in the field for eight years, there are very few attorneys available to represent or counsel parents and caregivers. The law school’s newest legal clinic aims to make a dent in that huge need, by offering pro bono services to families who need an advocate. In return, the students gain practical legal experience and exposure to the field. Ultimately, Schiltz and Jepsen, who now serves as an adjunct professor in the clinic, hope to increase the number of attorneys practicing in the area of special education law as a specialty, or adjunct to other areas of practice, such as family law, or in pro bono work. The Special Education Clinic started as a pilot program in 2020, and officially launched last year, led by Schiltz, with help from Jepsen, who is also the mother of a son with autism. In fact, she came to the law school specifically to learn how to advocate on his behalf.
The students enrolled in this year’s clinic bring their own passion for disability advocacy. Kari Thoreson has an older brother with Down syndrome and sat in on some of the meetings at his school. As she grew older, she said, “I recognized that Vince wasn’t gaining any sort of meaningful outcome from his education even though I knew he was capable of achieving so much more.” Nathan Kroschel has a part-time job at a group home for people with intellectual and emotional disabilities.
Anna Brekke has an uncle with autism, and helped coach his Special Olympics team.
And Derek Witte knows the special education system firsthand. Witte has cerebral palsy and says dyslexia runs in his family. When he got to high school, he was discouraged from going to college, but he persevered. SPECIAL EDUCATION LAW The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), established in 1975 under a different name, requires each state to provide every child with a disability a “free appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment” possible in order to receive federal funding.
The IDEA requires a school to work with the student and their family to create an
Individualized Education Program (IEP), a written plan specifying all the services and aids that will be provided to support the student’s education for the school year. It is supposed to document current levels of academic achievement and functional performance and set measurable annual goals for progress. In practice, however, Jepsen said most IEPs fall far short. “The most common error,” she said, is “the failure to identify an initial baseline for the child, from which progress can be measured.” On par with that “is the failure to, in fact, provide measurement on progress.”
Summer 2022 Page 21
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