#042 Inclusive Education Project. Legal help from Vickie Brett and Amanda Selogie.

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Vickie Brett and Amanda Selogie from the Inclusive Education Project, which is a pro bono nonprofit legal firm in the States that focuses on inclusive education. One of the things that just blows my mind is that after decades of legal actions supporting children’s legal rights to access quality, inclusive and individualized education, that there would still be a need and enough of a need to support a legal practice. But there you have it. Amanda and Vickie talk about their legal practice as being a civil rights practice and I really couldn’t agree more. There’s something powerful about locating disability and inclusive education within the context of civil rights. Now, rights are not the only relevant or important context for thinking about inclusive education, but it’s certainly one of them. I hope you enjoy this interview.

Inclusive Education Project

Amanda points out that not all families are going to know that their children have a right to inclusive education.

You are entitled to this type of education for your child. You are entitled to inclusion or whatnot because the families may not always be in a position to say, “I know that I can go get an attorney for this. So I’m going to Google special education attorneys.” Most of them, they’re not going to do that. So it takes someone else letting them know, “Hey, you’ve got rights.”

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Genia:            Welcome to the Good Things in Life Podcast. I’m your host Genia Stephen. Today on the Good Things in Life Podcast, I’m interviewing Vickie Brett and Amanda Selogie from the Inclusive Education Project, which is a pro bono nonprofit legal firm in the States that focuses on inclusive education. One of the things that just blows my mind is that after decades of legal actions supporting children’s legal rights to access quality, inclusive and individualized education, that there would still be a need and enough of a need to support a legal practice. But there you have it. Amanda and Vickie talk about their legal practice as being a civil rights practice and I really couldn’t agree more. There’s something powerful about locating disability and inclusive education within the context of civil rights. Now, rights are not the only relevant or important context for thinking about inclusive education, but it’s certainly one of them. I hope you enjoy this interview.

Genia:            Vickie Brett, Amanda Selogie, I’m so happy to welcome you to the Good Things in Life Podcast. Thank you so much for joining me today. I’m really excited. I wonder if the two of you could just introduce yourselves, talk about your relationship with people with disabilities and their families, and tell us a little bit about inclusive education, the Inclusive Education Project.

Amanda:       Sure. Thank you so much for having us on. This is Amanda Selogie. Um, Vickie and I started our practice about five years ago. Um a special education legal practice which we like to kind of say it’s a civil rights litigation practice and, um, a nonprofit that has kind of been working together to function to support families of children living with disabilities or, um, who are struggling in school to ensure that they’re receiving the appropriate and quality education that they are entitled to not only under the law, but that all kids should be entitled to just as a human right. Um, and so the Inclusive Education Project provides pro bono legal aid for low income families all across California. We hope one day to be expanded to other states as well. But for right now, um, in California. Um, I, I got into this field, not because I had a family member, but, um, I have a aunt that’s a special education teacher in Los Angeles.

Amanda:       And I kind of stumbled upon the idea that I, well, I always worked with kids, always love kids. I’m going to go and be a special education teacher. And I had the benefit of working at while I was in college, one of those, one in a million, uh, schools that does inclusion, full inclusion right. Um, a wonderful program that really encouraged, um, the unique needs of every single student, not just those living with disabilities, but, um, each and every one. And it, and it fostered this culture in this school that I, I got the benefit of being able to, as, as an aid for a child with Down syndrome, really be able to see how much inclusion not only helps the child that I was working with, but every kid. Um, and the kids that started at that school in preschool and, and had their entire, um, you know, kindergarten through first grade educational career.

Amanda:       And then, um, once I left the school, they now have a middle school and high school. But just the, the love, um, and understanding that all these kids had of each other, um, was really remarkable and, and made me fall in love with this community and with these kids and see how much potential that they do have. And I quickly learned that being a teacher in the system is not very easy. Um, not only for just the hard work that it requires, but also the red tape that’s involved. And I had been told all my life like I should be an attorney and I thought it’s so hard. But as I got into this kind of roadblock, I was told by some families I’ve worked with about [inaudible] the legal process that’s involved in getting kids in schools like that. And it kind of just clicked.

Amanda:       It fell in my lap as this is what I’m supposed to do. I want to help these kids. I don’t think teaching is the right way because I feel like I’ll probably get fired cause I’ll speak up. But this was a way that I felt kind of like almost like a calling that I could, I could help these kids. Um, so I went to law school specifically to do this area of law and was so lucky to meet Vickie and, um, and get a job right out of law school doing this area of law. And, and Vickie and I kind of had this idea that there’s, there’s a different way to do this. Um, there’s the traditional litigation that everyone’s been doing for 40 years in this area, um, but there’s gotta be a better way. And so that’s kind of where we are now and I’ll refer to kind of how we operate a little bit differently. That’s great.

Vickie:            Oh, no, it’s okay. So this is Vickie and we are attorneys. We like to talk. I think Amanda hit on a lot of different things. Um, but yeah, one of the things that, um, our law firm, this, this area, the law is, is relatively new for us, um, in the United States. It’s only been around since the 70s. I did have a, I do have a family member, um, on the spectrum. So I was introduced to this, this area, not even this area of the law, but yet my cousin, right. Um, Kenny, um, and, uh, him getting kicked out of schools when he was younger and it really wasn’t until law school that I even realized that special education law existed. Um, and by that point, the district had tried to push him out that, you know, he had turned 18. My, um, and then, uh, sometimes they’re known as guardianship, but here in California conservatorships, you know, she, she didn’t go to the court to, to make, uh, get the power to make decisions for Ken.

Vickie:            And, um, the school kind of approached him and said, “Ken, don’t you want to be a fifth year senior and graduated with your friends? You know, sign yourself out of your special education services.” So that really happened while I was in law school. Um, and Amanda and I had actually met studying abroad in Spain. I was a year older than her, um, just in law school. So I was in my third year, my last year, and she was going into her second. And, um, we wanted a class together and she said, “Well, I’m, I’m doing this special education, um, clinic. You should do it.” And I thought, “Okay, that, that sounds great.” You know, she knew what she was going to be coming to law school and, um, had already been in the clinic for a year and I said I was going to be an environmental law attorney.

Vickie:            So I, I needed the unit. Um, ended up being in the class. They pulled me from her class, the Los Angeles city class to go to the Orange County class. So we didn’t even get the class. But we always shared this kind of special place in our heart, um, for this area of the law. And, um, although her and I were at different firms for the first year or two of our, um, year two of our new careers as attorneys, we came back and wanted the focus to be on how do we help, especially low income families, those families that are monolingual Spanish speakers. I’m a Spanish speaker. Um, how can we use our accounts to kind of start the conversation around, um, these learning differences in these unique needs? And I think that that’s what it’s kind of different about the way and the way in which we approach, um, this area of the law that not a lot of attorneys in this area or in different areas of the law can even do. So, um, we’re really lucky in that way.

Genia:            And so how does the Inclusive Education Project help families?

Vickie:            So a couple of different ways in which we help families, um, are, uh, they’ll call into our office and they may have, um, an a particular issue. Um, so we do a general intake, um, and then we typically request the records from the school district. Um, so those include the individualized education program and the meeting notes, um, plans, um, the, accumulative file of the child. You know, sometimes we’ll see different things. So the parent might want a one-to-one aide. You know, Bobby, Bobby’s mom got him a one-to-one aide, and he’s doing so much better. Um, so we had that in mind. We always ask, you know, and in a perfect world, what is it that you want for your child? And sometimes some parents are very specific and sometimes we get the general, I just want them to be happy. I want them to be able to live in this world and be okay.

Vickie:            Um, so when we’re able to kind of delve in deeper into the records, um, and kind of spot some issues, maybe they’re not getting enough services and speech and language, maybe, um, he doesn’t like to write because he needs assistive technology, um, in the form of a, a computer or a written, writing program on his computer to help them out. So we’re able to kind of see a lot of different things. And because we, um, as a firms really believe in networking with people other than attorneys. We know a lot of speaking language pathologist. We know a lot of occupational therapists. We really have made a lot of friends with people that are experts in those fields. And they help us see what the issues are and how we can move forward in providing or helping to provide the appropriate services that the school should be providing to the child for their education.

Genia:            Right.

Amanda:       And, and that’s kind of like our, our legal branch, so to speak of the nonprofit. Um, and then, you know, the other side of it is we really strive to one day make our jobs not exist. Um, a lot of the families that could use our help or should use our help, most of the time they don’t even know that we exist, let alone that there’s even an issue or you know, it’s very easy for people to trust a school, think they are the educators. They obviously would want what’s best for my child. And unfortunately there is a lot of red tape and there is, there are issues that revolve around money and things that get in the way that it’s not always what’s best for the kid and it’s not always the right route. And so a lot of what we try to do is the education and empowerment component of our nonprofit.

Amanda:       Um, does a lot of educating, not only families that are involved in this population, but the community at large. Um, the community organizations that would serve these families, uh, pediatricians, therapists, um, like he was saying, all of these people that were connected with a lot of them are the source that, that they may, um, provide information to these families that these are your rights. You are entitled to this type of education for your child. You are entitled to inclusion or whatnot because the families may not always be in a position to say, “I know that I can go get an attorney for this. So I’m going to Google special education attorneys.” Most of them, they’re not going to do that. So it takes someone else letting them know, “Hey, you’ve got rights.” And then wanting to educate those families and wanting, you know, from the other side really to change the perception of not only disability but education.

Amanda:       Um, and from that perspective, we have a podcast as well where, you know, our whole goal is to start the conversation about issues that are not being talked about and change the conversation about issues that really are perceived in a way that, you know, are really harmful for these kiddos. Um, looking at disability as a negative for one rather than looking at their assets, their abilities that we like to say, you know, the person first language using or, um, assets, you know, before deficits and really looking at this child as a child. Um, student is a student just like any other, you know, we, we really strive to say, you know, especially education law is really, um, the next fixable rights frontier. We, we kind of say, because it is something that although it’s been around since the 70s, you know, the perceptions in the world and in the United States really are that a person with a disability can’t. They can’t do this, they can’t do that. And so we want to change that because it’s not true.

Genia:            Right. So, um, I think the, the Canadians in my audience are probably snickering a little bit about the fact that there is, um, a legal practice dedicated to special education because of course as Canadians, we, we often joke about the litigious culture, um, in the States. But I think it’s, it’s fascinating to me. It sounds like you do a lot more than actually take schools to court. And so that is, that’s fantastic. But it also is mind blowing to me that you would have enough work. You’d have enough legal work in this area because as you say, you know, special education law has been a thing since the 70s. And in the 70s, you know, when, when my sister and I were young and my parents were advocating for an inclusive education for my sister, there were a number of groundbreaking legal cases all over North America that established that children had the right to go to school, get a quality education and go to their community school. Um, so I’m not even sure, it’s not even a question. It’s, I guess just a statement around really? Like we’re still at that stage where parents are having to resort to, to legal action. I guess the question is, um, can you, can you talk about that sort of historical evolution within the legal system, um, of parents needing to come back and back, um, over and over again over the decades to bring this, um, civil rights issue into the courts in order to find resolution?

Amanda:       Yeah, so I mean, the, the biggest I guess answer for that is when the United States Congress enacted the Individuals with Disability Education Act or the IDEA, um, and established a lot of these laws surrounding special education and a lot of these groundbreaking cases came out of the Supreme court around that time. The central premise of the IDEA is an individualized education program.

Genia:            Right.

Amanda:       And so no matter how many cases come out that may be groundbreaking, they can be distinguished from any other case because children are individuals and their unique needs are individuals. And because the law sets forth the idea that the IEP should be generated based on the unique needs of that, that child, um, you know, as we know that one child living on the spectrum is not the same as another child. How what early intervention they get is going to be different from another.

Amanda:       And if they have, you know, comorbid disabilities, like we have such unique kids that require different, um, you know, I think it would be easy if, if, and, and what happens a lot is schools create these one size fits all program is that don’t go forth with that law. And I would say, you know, probably the biggest problem that we have is that even though the law is on our side, that it should be individually and we should promote the least restrictive environment. The implementation of that law and the enforcement is where unfortunately we have to come in. Um, uh, you know, the, to the question that like, how do we have enough work? Part of the point of it is there’s just not that many of us that do this area of law.

Genia:            Do you think that the fact that, that the law said that children have a right to individualized education as opposed to saying children with disabilities have a right to a fully inclusive education means that, um, people that don’t want to provide or boards or of education or, or whatever, that do not want to provide a fully inclusive education can then argue that the best individualized option is a segregated model? Like do you think that or do you think that it is actually just a generalized problem of people really believe that kids with disability just can’t, and so it’s, the law is sort of perpetually, um, uh, almost like underpowered to counter what is ultimately like a mindset or a belief issue as opposed to, um, you know, what a legal right might say?

Vickie:            Yeah. So I mean, when you’re taking into consideration that, yes, in the 1970s, we had a law created in the United States and we’ve been around as a country since the 1700. I, it’s most definitely cultural and I think that that’s something that as attorneys, we recognize fairly quickly when we were just law students. In a special education clinic. You know, not every law school has a special education clinic. I think there’s only two or three in just the state of California. And we’re a pretty big state. But it speaks to the overall cultural stigma of what it is to be a person living with a disability. And then, you know, just even breaking down the word even more, if it’s people that have this an ability and then we’re putting that negative connotation of dicks, right, like disability, they’re not, they’re not able. So for the laws to come out, yes, it made ways and, and it goes back, you know, even to the 30s, you know, the 1930s of, of, of people and parents wanting to, to push the envelope and it took many decades, um, before, you know, from the 30s to the 70s for not just teachers but you know, the parents.

Vickie:            And, and I think that that’s what Amanda and I are trying to do with that spreading awareness is how are we going to change the conversation? Um, how are we able to, because yes, the schools can only do so much and case law has changed that, you know, what is the free appropriate public education? Everybody knows what free is. Everybody knows what public education and our job really is what is appropriate. And because of individualized, you know, I think the intention was good. It was like, well not every child and, in the 70s they weren’t really talking about this, but now not every child with autism is going to benefit from this, um, self contained classroom. Object children with autism. Um, maybe they’ll need some, um, mainstreaming. Maybe they need to learn basic skills and then be kind of mainstreamed into the general education classes. And, and so I think that the intention was good and like Amanda had said, like, the lot is good. Um, but the implementation, now that’s a whole another thing. And something here in America, the almighty dollar, um, you know, we, it’s all about dollars and cents. If I have to provide a hundred kids with speech and language therapies and I only have three speech and language pathologist, but I take away speech and language for 80 of those kids, then I only have to hire one speech and language pathologist. So I’d rather just say no to 80 parents and then maybe one or two of them will find an attorney and fight that.

Amanda:       You know, and I think a big part is we have such a one size fits all education system to begin with. So you know, we often, when we’re talking about different strategies that helped, uh, helps our, um, different learners. Um, we talk about reading intervention programs that help kids living with dyslexia and how they benefit everybody, they’re multi-sensory programs. And so, but the idea that the way that our education system plays out now is such a one size fits all. It really makes it difficult to go and include someone. And you know, we have teachers right now that have been teachers for as long as the IDEA has been in place. And the, I mean the world, the world as a whole in science learns more about the brain each and every year and we learn new techniques. But if you have people who learned how to be a teacher in the 70s or even in the 80s or 90s, they’re not like as much as they’re required,

Amanda:       teachers are required to do some continued education. You know, it’s sometimes hard to teach an old dog new tricks, um, or it’s hard when the system doesn’t want it to right. Because I know so many teachers that we love to go and learn new techniques and go and learn new things, but they can’t pay for themselves. They don’t have enough money or they can’t afford it or they don’t have the time and the schools aren’t doing it. Um, even today we have credentialing programs, um, at least in California where there are no special education classes really required for a general education teacher, um, getting their credentials. There is generally like one class that is almost like an intro to special education that doesn’t even scratch the surface. So what we’re asking is we’re asking general education teachers to accept these kids and we’re not giving them the training to do so.

Amanda:       Um, but that’s only part of the puzzle because there are many kids that we fight to get into a full inclusion class and the things that would help that child be successful in that class are very simple or they are self explanatory or their common sense. But the first thing that goes through a teacher’s mind many times is “I don’t know how to teach a child with Down syndrome”, “I don’t know how to teach a child with ADHD”. So they’re from the get go, it’s the idea of “I do things this one way, now I have to change it for this kid?” So what we, we like to really, when we talk about inclusion, we like to say, you know, it’s, it’s not, it’s not about changing for that one kid. If we change the class as a whole, we’d be accepting of all kids. And it wouldn’t be. So if, when the IDEA was established, if all the schools said, “We’re going to be more inclusive and we’re going to start a culture of inclusivity and we are going to start from the ground up”, then 40 years later we, yeah, our jobs shouldn’t exist.

Amanda:       But when we didn’t do that, we established a law that put forth obligations of schools and said, “Here’s, we just threw some monies at the school”, and said, “Do what we say and here’s the money”, and not really how to do it and not some foundation for it. Let’s just, let’s make sure that we are, we’re working this for all kids. And you know, we get asked a lot, um, and why we sometimes like to say civil rights attorneys instead of special education, is there’s a misperception about special education. Um, a very negative connotation. And a lot of families are hesitant, uh, because a lot of the kids that we serve don’t have clear co-diagnoses and there’s not a diagnosis of autism or Down syndrome or ADHD, but they’re struggling in school. And a lot of people, even educators think, “Well, there’s no diagnosis. There’s no disability so they don’t belong in special education”.

Genia:            Right.

Amanda:       But what’s, what, what the idea can provide for any of those kids, um, is a lot. Uh, special education is not just for kids with disabilities. Um, if a kid is struggling in school for some reason or another, we’re supposed to be supporting them. And so, but that’s not, that’s like one trend that we’ve seen in the last couple of years as being a big part of our caseload is, is kids dealing with mental health issues and that being considered not something the school has to do anything about. But it is and just the idea that there are educators out there that have never been trained that, that this is even an option to support them, um, is problematic. So it’s, it’s that idea that, you know, the culture and the perception surrounding not only disabilities and differently abled people, but also education in general.

Amanda:       I think it’s always the, the last thing on everyone’s agenda. I’m sure your listeners in Canada are also watching our elections as closely as we are, as what crazy thing is America going to do next then you, but you don’t need, never hear these politicians talk about education. It’s the last thing that they’re asked about and we say, “Why?” It should be the first thing because the education system is what’s creating the future leaders of America. So why are we not putting our time and energy into it?

Genia:            Right. Yeah. It’s interesting what you said about what would have happened if change was made in the 70s, you know, 40 years ago. Um, and that money was kind of put in with no guidance and what’s, what’s happening now, um, I think in both countries is that in most places money’s being taken back out. So there’s sort of a double whammy there of teachers not feeling well prepared to revolutionize education and the sort of, um, the, the, you know, canes that they were leading on, leaning on that were, are now starting to be pulled back as well.

Genia:            Um, so then when parents are considering, well, one parents are advocating for their kids. Um, and when your, you know, in a class when they’re in a class or they’re in a school board that doesn’t have good models of inclusion, how then do you see families who are successful, whether they’re litigating or they’re just looking at, um, some of the other support and educational tools that you have? Where do you see the most success for families, um, who are working with difficult systems? Like is there a, do you see any difference between the families that just continue to bash their heads against a brick wall and families that are successful in their efforts? Not successful to perfection, that’s not what I mean. And they’re advocates of strategies.

Vickie:            Yeah, I mean there’s, there’s a couple, I mean, there’s definitely districts that, that we know are harder than others and that can change, um, five years from now because their board of directors are different, right? Um, and we can also see those parents that kind of start that grassroots organization. Um, a district will kind of shake up if they have five or six different families suing them at the same time, right? Um, and, and that can just be, um, United States side. Um, but we also see it if, you know, um, we have several families that we represent in one school. Um, they recognize that we try, you know, you catch more flies with honey. We, we do try to be collaborative at first. Um, and depending on the, the review of the records is their gross negligence and just violations and we don’t feel comfortable trying to go in and, you know, koombaya with everyone, like, we’ll advise that we need to file in that instance, especially if the child has suffered.

Vickie:            Um, but if there is a chance that we’re able to try to be collaborative and really reach that team on just like a human level, because a lot of the teachers, they get burned out, they go to these meetings all the time and it’s just really miscommunication. I think that oftentimes these, I said in the meeting the other day, I was like, you guys go through this like a hundred times in a year. This is parents like second time at an IEP meeting. Can we have a little bit of compassion? Yes. You know, bringing it back to this isn’t just a job, this is the kid’s life on. So it’s hard because we’ve seen it in both sides. We’ve seen the grassroots efforts do try to change locally on a smaller level, that particular school. Um, and sometimes it works with that grassroots, sometimes it works because that principal or that head of school is gone. Um, and sometimes it works because we’re a bit more aggressive and we sue them a bunch. [inaudible]

Amanda:       So, yeah. And to piggyback on what Vickie said, when you have a, a teacher, um, but not just the teacher because the teacher needs to be supported, right? So the administration as well, when you have a teacher and an administration that is willing, um, and not just willing to think outside the box and change their ways, but also is compassionate and understanding. And not to say that most educators and administrators aren’t compassionate, but the amount of times I’ve gone to meetings what we’ve asked for a child even be mainstream for an hour, um, the immediate reaction is that can’t be done. Or it’s not going to be good for anyone. It’s going to be a distraction. I mean, when I work for me, so the immediate like reaction of all of a sudden we haven’t even tried it, but I already know it’s not gonna work.

Amanda:       Um, that perception is often where, you know, it’s the family sees it as the door being closed in their face that you’re not even willing to consider. So when you have a teacher that says, “I hear what you’re saying, you would like your kid to be in this class, let’s see what we can do. Let’s try it.” I think there’s not enough, um, schools that are willing to try things. I think there’s a lot of, and even families as well, sometimes it happens where you know, both sides, like Vickie said, with the miscommunication, often times, you know, one person is thinking one thing and the other person is thinking something else. And so the way that they’re communicating is not effective. Um, almost like when there’s, you know, bad communication in a marriage, it’s a very similar, um, consequence that you ended up in a fight in a battle and then that’s usually when litigation happens.

Amanda:       When the things have gone so far, um, that, you know, there’s no reconciliation. But you know, from the foremost is if you have educators and administrators that are open to try new things and you have a parent that is educated about their rights, um, and even as simple, like they don’t need to know all the facets of the IDEA, but something as simple as you think something’s right for your child, have, you have the right to ask for it. A lot of families don’t even think they have a right to ask for things. Um, or you think that something should be tried or you want information about something, you have a right to ask. And I think if from the get go the first time the child enters the education system, we have both of these things happening at once and there’s a good communication system and both the family, the school is open to trying different things, you’re more likely to have success.

Amanda:       And you know, from this my experience, I’ve had a number of kiddos that have, when they’ve come through my door, they’d been fully in a self contained special day class, 100% of the time. And within, on one end I had one case that was within a couple months and another for two years. Um, they were fully integrated 100% internet, but it was a process. It took us trying different things. Um, it took us thinking outside the box, being creative, um, meeting a lot to talk about what is the challenge now, how can we, and it was a very collaborative approach. Um, we had teams in those instances that were willing to listen to all sides. Um, and, and even me as an attorney, um, I was able to bring to the table, not as an attorney per se, but as someone who’s, you know, been in the education system so long that, you know, I even go to one IEP meeting and I, I hear ideas and strategies and I bring it to another, I go, “Why don’t we try this?”

Amanda:       Um, just the openness to consider things that are coming from like, you know, instead of having that door closed automatically just because it came from the parent or just because it came from some other side. Um, and it goes both ways. You know, we need families to be more open. If we’re thinking outside the box, I think we have more success, um, with that collaborative approach. But you know, the easiest way to do it is to start from the beginning that way. Not when the kids already been in a self contained class for four years and there’s already a tumultuous relationship between the parties, um, you know, that’s when it becomes more challenging [inaudible].

Genia:            Right, right. So part of what I’m hearing you say is that one, um, one advocacy strategy that seems to work is when parents, um, when there’s more than one family. So one thing parents might might do is consider, um, consider connecting with other families in their, um, in their neighborhood or in their school district if they’re considering, um, or engaged in advocacy efforts. And that you’re seeing that both with sort of gentle advocacy approaches, but also when it comes down to, um, decisions around legal action. And then on the other side, um, what, uh, on the school board side, what seems to make a big difference is the compassion and willingness to sort of try and, and work with parents. And I wonder that, and what you were just talking about that relates to that willingness to try in that creativity, that may kind of be the answer to this question, but I wonder if you, um, have thoughts about when it’s not appropriate for parents to consider contacting lawyers specifically for legal action. I recognize that your organization offers other services, but when does it not the right time to approach a lawyer? And when is it, I know probably most parents, I certainly have had moments where I thought.

Amanda:       We should just sue them. Like this is so not okay, but.

Genia:            Also recognizing that that’s not always it. That’s not always right.

Vickie:            Yes. Um, I think that for the most part parents don’t understand that they have rights. So while it’s always a situation where we get the very upset parents that basically, yeah, Google and then find that, “Hey, there’s attorneys in this area”, I don’t ever think that there’s a wrong time. We speak to a lot of families and kind of give them encouraging words when we say that you know, you have a voice and you have rights. Um, I think that if you are just recently experiencing a diagnoses of your child and that label, um, you know, the first thing you may not want to do is call an attorney, um, because you know, sometimes there is a part of the processing that you are coming to terms of like, “Oh my goodness, what am I going to do?” But I think that it’s also helpful and maybe it’s just because of the way Amanda and I are to speak to someone like us, because then we can say it’s going to be okay and this is how it’s going to be okay. Amanda, were you going to add some stuff?

Amanda:       Yeah, I mean, and, and of course this is the function of how we operate, not all attorneys. So, um, you know, a lot of times we do have families that come to us and when we say, you know what, this is something where you know, you need to ask for an assessment and certainly you could pay us to help you through that process, um, but, and you don’t necessarily need us right now. And why we kind of created our podcast is really to try to give that information to families so that, you know, they don’t feel the need to go and get a consultation because while we may be able to do a free consultation and tell you that not all attorneys are going to do that. Um, you know, so, but you know, when families come to us, most of the time, if there is a case, if there is a legitimate case to file litigation or involve an attorney, um, you know, we’re going to let the families know.

Amanda:       But one of the main things that we ask the families from the get go is what is it that you’re looking for? Because the law, as much as we may be able to prove the school district did something wrong, the law only affords us certain remedies. So if a family is just out for blood or if a family just wants money, um, you know, at least our firm, we’re generally going to say, “Look, we’re not going to be able to get you that because the law doesn’t afford you that.” It doesn’t afford you, um, you know, a lot of families are like, “Well, I want them to admit they did something wrong.” You know, the court generally isn’t gonna write her opinion. Even if you win, that necessarily says that. It’s going to be full of legal leads. It’s not going to be what you want.

Amanda:       And the law also doesn’t afford you monetary damages. There’s no like, what you would get in a car accident, like pain and suffering. Um, you know, so if that’s, if that’s what you’re looking for, this isn’t the right route. Um, you know, so usually in those cases we can turn the family around and say, “Look, for your child, it’s like, is it that you feel that they need this private placement now because they are so far behind academically that they’re just drowning and they need this other setting, but that setting costs money and you can’t afford it? Because we can seek either reimbursement of that cost or we can seek placement in that program. Um, or is it that you think you need money because you need to pray for tutoring or pay for this or for that?” Um, you know, that’s something that we can get those actual services.

Amanda:       So sometimes that’s, that’s a big factor as well. Whether or not you want to go the route of litigation. Sometimes it’s, you know, family just wants to go to another school and there’s ways outside the litigation process to do that sometimes. Um, you know, so like Vickie says, like, I think oftentimes just getting an overview of your rights and, um, knowing that that is an option. You know, of course we’re from a litigious society, so saying there’s never a wrong time. I’m sure your Canadian listeners are thinking, “Oh, okay.” Like we said, like we may be attorneys, but our roles aren’t off, are always, and, and there are other attorneys that function that way too, that go to IEP meetings that can help navigate the system. And, you know, that’s important too, because just knowing your rights and, you know, it’s a lot of information when families go down this road and started this process. Um, and so being able to be aware of, of these rights and where you can get, um, support, uh, not just legal support, but you know, there’s so many agencies and organizations out there that help that most people just don’t know about.

Genia:            Right. Right. So, when, when should families consider that legal action and bite? And when I say legal action, I mean like the full-on, um, I’m just going to say Perry Mason, but that’s the wrong kind of lawyer. Yeah, but the, like a full-on, you know, um, a full on civil rights suit. When, does that make sense?

Vickie:            I was just going to say, we do see that to a certain extent because of the way our law is written, the individuals with disabilities and education act, everything is individualized. So these big kind of class action, um, that we win a bunch of, uh, parents kind of come together and bring those heights of lawsuits or when there’s like policy like district policy where they’re discriminating based on disability period. Um, but most of the cases that we deal with are individualized. So it’s just that kid. Oh, right. Because they have that unique need and the district was not, um, providing the services to meet that child’s unique needs so that they were gaining, um, some type of educational benefit. Um, Amanda, were you gonna add something?

Amanda:       Yeah, I was just gonna say, you know, when we deal with situations where schools are not just creating policies, but um, a lot of times just general practices that are discriminatory in nature, um, you know, would lend itself to a bigger like civil rights case. And you know, why we normally say that we’re civil rights attorneys, like our, our um, litigation that we do is technically considered a civil rights litigation. It’s just the way that it functions here in, in different states. It’s more of a administrative law, legal process. It’s not this big scary years long. It can be, but usually, um, it can resolve within three to six months. So it’s a little bit different, um, than most people think, Oh, I’m going through a divorce or a car accident and it’s going to be four years before I see anything or it’s going to be two years or whatnot.

Amanda:       Um, if you go to federal court and you’re fighting based on the Americans with Disabilities Act or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, looking at those purely discriminatory practices, um, you know, those are our really big cases. And, you know, we get that we get families, um, a lot that have their own individual cases and we file litigation on behalf of them and they are dealing with discriminatory practices that have in some way harmed their child. And we look at the individual chase, we look at how can we make this child whole or as best we can, how can we put them on a better path moving forward? And that might be changing schools or changing programs or fully including them or allowing them to be on the football team, um, allowing them to go, um, as part of afterschool programs. That’s one of the things that we see a lot.

Amanda:       Um, you know, a pro, a school will say we have this program and everyone’s allowed to be in it, but the child with an IEP says they want to be in it and they have an aide. It’s immediately, “Oh, well we can’t give you an aide. We’ll let you in, but we won’t give you an aide.” And that’s pure discrimination because you’re allowing access to a child without a disability and you’re preventing access to a child with a disability simply because they need an aide. You know, so that may be something where we negotiate in a settlement. Okay, the kids going to be part of this. But the families always say, well that’s fine and well for my kid. Well what about the next?

Genia:            Right. Yeah, eaxcatly.

Amanda:       What about all the other kids at our schools, we know it’s happening. So that’s the instance where, you know, if it’s possible to move forward on these bigger discrimination cases, it’s just, it’s so hard to prove because you have to prove deliberate indifference, which is a very high standard. Um, so there’s other avenues that families can take with regards to like the discrimination. Um, we have, um, here a division of the federal department of education, um, called the Office of Civil Rights that handles, um, complaints of this nature that where the department can come and investigate a school district, um, for these practices. That is, we kind of, it’s kinda like the middle ground between doing just an individual case and doing a big federal case, cause maybe you don’t have enough people to do, um, a federal class action about this or you can’t prove that it was intentional. Um, but you know, it’s happening.

Amanda:       This is a middle ground where we can get the department of education involved. And as much as we like to say, there’s not much enforcement in the department of education. That’s one of our biggest challenges is that we have to be the enforcement police. That’s why our jobs exist because department of education should be doing this, but they’re not. Um, the Office of Civil Rights is one division that in some cases not all, um, they actually do go in and investigate, um, and they, uh, forced the school districts to change their policies. Whether or not those changes have long-term effects, um, aren’t always, you know, it’s, it’s one of those things that, you know, we can, we can tell a school district that you’re required to do this, but if the department education isn’t, you know, continuing to monitor, then they may do it for one year and then go back to, you know, their old ways.

Genia:            Right. So you’ve described a pretty dismal state of affairs as far as the education system is concerned. And I want to acknowledge that all three of us know that there are hardworking teachers and educators and administrators out there who are working to make things better. So that acknowledged.

Amanda:       Absolutely.

Genia:            Yeah, we are, I know we all think this. So that acknowledged, given that frankly it’s a sad state of affairs. I was talking to somebody earlier today who, um, who works regularly with families and she was saying that they, they’ve still have families who come in all the time and say, um, you know, “I didn’t know that my child had a right to go to their neighborhood school because every time we walk into, um, what somebody in my Down syndrome group box into the school to register their child, the secretary tells us we don’t do Downs here.” So,

Vickie:            Oh. Oh my God.

Genia:            It’s not. So, so my point again is that the issues are pervasive despite good people in the system, you know, working hard. So why should parents, even though we know that inclusive education works better for all children, whether they have disabilities or not, given how dismal it is, why do you think that parents should feel confident that whether they’re looking at legal action or whether they’re just pursuing other advocacy that they should pursue inclusive education for their children?

Vickie:            Because the world doesn’t have special education classrooms. As much as people love to label, um, and, and put people in boxes, that’s just not how the world is. Um, so having the competence and knowing what is best for your child and knowing that you want to prepare them for the world, no matter how dismal the world even see it seems right now. Um, you know, that’s the hope for, for any parent. And I think for parents of children with learning differences or living with different types of, um, disabilities, it’s something that we need to strive for. And it is our responsibility to try and change the cultural stigma around people with disabilities because they are just people at the end of the day.

Amanda:       And I think, you know, we may have a system and, and it may sound very daunting that, you know, there’s just so much wrong and we get people all the time, well maybe we just need to scrap the whole system cause there’s so much wrong. I think that, you know, parents listening and the idea that I’m just going to sit at home because there’s nothing I can do it. It’s kind of the same argument that people make with gun control. Like, well, we can’t get them all, but it’s like, but we get some, and that’s better than nothing. Um, no change, no grassroots change has ever come from people sitting at home. Um, it takes people standing up and we tell families all the time, they say, “Well, you know, I’m so happy and fortunate that I was able to get help from you and then we were able to afford you, or we were able to get the free services or whatnot, but you know, how do we, how do we make this not happen anymore?”

Amanda:       And I say, “You know, it’s, it’s families like you because the more families that speak up, the more we’re going to change. And the more people who are aware that this is a problem, the more it’s going to change.” Um, and so, you know, there is hope, you know, it may sound daunting in that, you know, there’s so much wrong and that there’s so much work to be done, but there are so many amazing people out there trying to make this change and that are fighting, uh, fighting. And I think we are in this, this age of technology where, you know, fortunately everyone’s listening to podcasts so it helps, um, that people are becoming more and more educated about things and more exposed to different things. And as much as you know, we may want to get depressed because of fake news and all of that.

Amanda:       There are more people who are learning more. Um, we’re doing more research. So I think, you know, the more that families just, you know, even if it’s something small, even if it’s something as, you know what I’m going to ask for my kids to be in that class for an hour or I’m going to ask for, you know, to go to this school instead of the other, um, empowering families is really important. Um, because when families are afraid to speak up is, is when we’re not doing our job to support them, I think. And so, you know, that’s really where we wanted to go with our nonprofit to really be able to reach as many families as possible, to empower them that you have a right to be here, you have a right to have a seat at the table. And um, you know, you may be one parent, but together we can make such a bigger wave. And if we just all, you know, stand up.

Genia:            Thank you very much. So Vickie, Amanda, thank you both so, so much. I, you know, if people are interested in listening to your podcast or learning more about, um, the Inclusive Education Project, how do they find you?

Amanda:       You can go to inclusiveeducationproject.org. Uh, you can also find us on Instagram, Facebook. I think we’re on a few other sites, Pinterest, um, and maybe Twitter a little bit. Um, our handle is Inclusive Education Project and um, our podcast is the Inclusive Education Project Podcast. And you can find it anywhere. You can find your podcast, Stitcher, Google Play, um, iTunes. Is that, is it iTunes? I don’t have the Apple, so I don’t know what it’s called. But yeah. The Apple one, the one that’s on your phone. Um, and also on our website. Um, and we have a, a Facebook group as well that is what we’ve kind of tried to create this community, um, of support. And so it’s, it’s for the podcast, so it’s, it’s the Inclusive Education Project Podcast and it’s a private group on Facebook that you can request to join and it’s full of families and educators and therapists and everyone in this community that is welcome to continue the conversation past just, um, you know, the conversations we have on our podcasts.

Genia:            Great. Thank you so much and I’ll make sure that there are links to that in the show notes for this podcast episode. Thank you so, so much.

Amanda:       Thank you for having us.

Vickie:            And thank you for having us on.

Genia:            Thanks so much for joining Vickie, Amanda and I today. I really hope that this was helpful. I hope it was thought provoking and I really hope that you never need their services. Did you know that Good Things in Life has a Facebook group? If this podcast is of interest to you and you would like to reach out and connect with other educators or parents, talk about the issues, dig a little deeper into the podcast episodes, then head on over to Facebook and you can find us at Good Things in Life. I hope that you have an excellent day, a fantastic week, and I will see you next week on the Good Things in Life Podcast.

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Special thanks to Vickie Brett and Amanda Selogie for joining me this week. Until next time!

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Genia Stephen
Genia Stephen

Sister, mother, midwife, writer, speaker and perpetually curious. Dedicated to bringing you the voices, ideas and conversations of world class mentors and thought leaders in the field of disability.