Thursday, May 8, 2008
Parents of special-needs kids offered legal aid
Program bolsters lawsuits vs. Metro By NATALIA MIELCZAREK • Staff Writer • May 8, 2008 Metro Nashville parents have a new ally in their efforts to educate their special needs children. Under a new program, the Nashville office of the Legal Aid Society, an independent, nonprofit law firm, will provide families that qualify with free services from legal advice to representation in court. Metro's problems with special education are documented: State education officials recently criticized the district for over-identifying African-American and other groups of students in special education. They also said the school system doesn't provide services to suspended students with special needs as required by law. The extra support, one Nashville mother said, will have a huge impact on parents new to the special education world and learning about their children's rights under federal law. "If this program was up and running earlier, I probably wouldn't have hesitated filing a complaint and pursuing legal action," said Gaye Carmon, a Nashville mother of a first-grader diagnosed with a type of autism. "If parents feel they're not getting what their children need at school and facing a legal path and the cost that will go with it, it's a challenge. This makes me feel bold in asking for what my child needs. I don't feel so alone." Last year in Metro, more than 13.3 percent of all students — more than 9,300 kids — received special education services, according to state data. Those range from intense remedial courses to basic lessons in doing laundry and cooking. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004, which is an update of the law originally passed in 1975, spells out the rights of special education students and what schools must do to meet their needs and provide adequate education. Nashville parents who feel their schools have failed to follow that law have only a handful of local legal resources to consult, said Erin Richardson, director of the Legal Advocacy Project, a pro bono legal advice program started this summer. It's offered through the Arc of Davidson County, a family-based organization that advocates for people with disabilities. Richardson works with attorneys who volunteer their time to work with parents and school districts to get special needs students the best personalized services, including classroom assistants or special therapies. Some cases involve just phone consultations but others require representation in legal proceedings. "As parents become more knowledgeable about the rights of their children under federal law, they notice that some districts are not in compliance," Richardson said. "As their awareness increases, my phone rings off the hook. I'm really pleased that Legal Aid Society is dedicating resources because it's going to help us." The new program is possible, in part, thanks to a $50,000 gift from a donor who wants to remain anonymous, said Linda McLemore, an attorney with the Nashville office of Legal Aid Society. The nonprofit usually helps those with low incomes — a family of four earning an average of $3,400 a month. But the new program will also consider those with slightly higher incomes, on a case-by-case basis, she said. "There's been such a great need in the community for a long time," McLemore said. "We also hope to identify some systemic problems that we could take to the school system to address on a broader basis." HOW TO GET HELP: Nashville office of Legal Aid Society: 244-6610. If you call, leave your name and number. Someone will call you back to talk about the special education issue and assess your financial eligibility to receive help. Your case will be referred to an attorney, who will contact you. The Arc of Davidson County's Legal Advocacy Project: 321-5699.
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