Law students Merry Snyder, left, and Gabrielle Kolb, right, share information with families about what to look for in an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

New Legal Clinic Seeks to Empower Parents of Special Education Students

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.”

The professors shared with the class real-world examples of IEPs and progress reports they had gathered, including some their own children had received in school. Many of the reports lacked specifics about the children’s progress, or measurable goals.

“We wanted to make the point that it happens to everybody,” Jepsen said.

Some students were shocked at what they found and were eager to use their legal training to help families.

Their first opportunity was an intervention of sorts – a training session at St. Peter Claver, a small Catholic school in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, for families with children who had been identified as eligible for special education services through St. Paul Public Schools.

The session would teach family members what to look for in their children’s IEPs: a baseline, measurable goals, and outcomes. In class, as the students broke into pairs to hone their presentation, a bigger goal emerged: to empower families. Professor Schiltz reminded the group that the families have some leverage – the school district needs them to approve the IEP. The training session should give parents confidence, she said, and let them know it’s OK to ask questions.

Professor Andrea Jepsen ‘06 J.D. speaks with law students in the Special Education Legal Clinic. (Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas)

Empowering families

The professors worked with St. Peter Claver’s principal, Terese Shimshock, to plan the session, inviting families to the meeting at the school on a late Tuesday afternoon in March.

St. Peter Claver’s student body is 98 percent children of color – mostly Black. Seventy percent of the student body receives free or reduced-price lunch. The school draws families from all over the Twin Cities, Shimshock said, attracted by the school’s small class sizes and because “families look like them here.”

“Unfortunately, a lot of families come to St. Peter Claver because they’re not successful at other schools,” she said, so kids are usually one to two grade levels behind. With individualized instruction, and a foundational phonics program, most students have made significant progress, she said.

The day of the meeting arrived, cold and rainy. It was just one more obstacle for families who are already stretched, Shimshock said.

“All families struggle with coming into the special ed process,” she said. “Even as educators, it’s confusing – much less people that are already feeling that they are not respected in the education process.”

The organizers were relieved when two parents arrived – a mother and a grandmother who co-parents her grandson with his mom.

The students’ presentation went smoothly. The parents were highly engaged and asked good questions. Then the students and professors divided up to talk with each family about their specific situation.

Afterward, both parents expressed gratitude for having someone take the time to explain things and help them navigate what can be an overwhelming process. “I feel like I don’t have to do this journey by myself,” one mom told Shimshock. She added that “I just feel like sometimes I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing. And so it just feels good to have someone walking that journey with me.”

Gabrielle Kolb, who hopes to work as a litigator, said she thought the message about parents and caregivers being allowed to demand more from the school district came through. “When you don’t know your specific rights under a law, it can be intimidating to push back against people who appear to be ‘experts,’” she noted, “so I think giving them permission to ask questions was valuable.”

The students continued to work with the families through the end of the semester. The empowerment they provided will benefit the families for years to come, Shimshock said.

The clinic hopes to host more training sessions at other schools, with the possibility of another meeting at St. Peter Claver or a social service agency.

Professor Elizabeth Schiltz at St. Peter Claver Catholic School in St. Paul. (Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas)

Looking to the future

Ultimately, Schiltz hopes the clinic can work with families whose children have been labeled as having emotional or behavioral disorders – a problematic categorization that disproportionately affects Black and American Indian students. Connections with those families have not happened yet.

But two years into a pandemic, there’s excitement about connecting with more clients like the ones they met in March – and the potential to walk alongside and empower more families navigating the special education system.

“St. Peter Claver – I think, absolutely, this is the beginning of a great relationship,” Jepsen said.

And that goal of increasing practitioners? The clinic has made a start there too. Kari Thoreson will be working with Jepsen’s former colleagues at the School Law Center in Stillwater this summer. She hopes to practice in special ed after she graduates next year.

This story is featured in the summer 2022 issue of St. Thomas Lawyer.

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