Settlement Agreements- MA Special Education Parent Attorneys provide a valuable analysis

Special education SETTLEMENT AGREEMENTS (per the Champa v. Weston ruling from SJC making them public) are the biggest topic of discussion in advocate circles and with parents who call me.  There are many thought-provoking and excellent points are made by the attorneys below (the attachments are unavailable).   I do consider the right to a free and appropriate education, specifically special education, a civil right.  Many parents can not afford to file for hearing and are left to settle (with competent counsel advising them) not wanting to take their chance at hearing.  I’ve seen many very fair settlements.  I’ve seen ones which make me cringe as the family had to give up so much in order for their child to receive what they and their experts believe to be FAPE.

Thank you to all the dedicated, kind, and fair parent special education attorneys who support families here in Massachusetts.  My children and family been blessed by the work of Massachusetts Advocates for Children, the Disability Law Center, Tim Sindelar, and Dan Perlman in their support of my own children (including my son, 17, with autism).

Letter to Channel 5 from Special Education Parent Attorneys
to Channel 5 News:

“The undersigned are attorneys who represent parents and children in education cases throughout Massachusetts. Some of us work for not-for-profit law firms and others engage in private practice, but we all have substantial experience with the settlement process as well as with special education litigation in Massachusetts.
Your recent story about settlement agreements in special education cases was somewhat misleading in appearing to suggest that such agreements are an unusual and perhaps inappropriate practice. While all students are entitled to a free appropriate public education from their local public schools, as in many areas of today’s society, it is not unusual for there to be disputes between the participants in the process. In the vast majority of all special education matters, parents and school districts work together and agree on appropriate accommodations, services and programs for special education students.

However, for a small fraction of all special education students, parents and school districts disagree about how a school district should provide the student with a free appropriate public education. When these matters cannot be resolved at the local level, parents have the right to go to a due process hearing before the Bureau of Special Education Appeals.

Like any litigation, a special education hearing can become expensive and risky. Therefore, many parents choose to enter settlement agreements, even paying part of the costs of special education programs, rather than go to a full hearing and risk losing. This is reflected in statistics from the Bureau of Special Education Appeals, indicating that over the last 10 years between 95 and 97 percent of all of these disputes are resolved without a full hearing. This is not an unusual statistic. In Superior Court in Massachusetts the percentage of all types of litigation disposed without a trial is strikingly similar.

As with any area of law, the terms of settlement agreements vary based on the individual facts in the case, including the strength of the merits of the case. Thus, the very fact that settlement agreements vary does not necessarily mean that the agreements are unfair or that they reflect discrimination or favoritism. To suggest otherwise is both misleading and unfair.
Your news story did, however, shine a light on a very serious problem: that in school districts with high poverty populations, many parents whose children are not receiving the special education and other services that they need do not even get to the settlement table because they do not have access to legal representation and expert evidence. Channel 5 found that, in the most affluent school districts, there were 405 settlements but only 15 in the least affluent school districts. This disparity speaks more to the lack of access to counsel and experts than to any other factor.

Many families with children with disabilities are poor; studies have found that one-quarter of students in special education have families with incomes below the poverty line and two-thirds have family incomes of $50,000 or less. While parents are often unable to find attorneys, school districts in Massachusetts are always represented by attorneys, usually either experienced employees or law firms with specialties in special education. Many parents who are poor also have limited education and may not even speak English, so they are unable to even consider filing for due process without an attorney to help them. Public interest organizations that provide free legal services are overwhelmed by the demand for legal assistance in special education matters, and turn away many families because they do not have the resources to help them. (A 2015 study by a taskforce of the Boston Bar Association noted that in 2013, legal services organizations were unable to help more than 54,000 individuals and families who had contacted them requesting assistance.) A substantial increase in funding for legal services is needed to begin to address these disparities.

In addition, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education should step up its oversight and assistance for school districts that serve large numbers of children living in poverty. The Department can make use of a wide range of incentives and enforcement activities to improve special education programs.

Finally, private enforcement of the rights of students is a key component of achieving better education results throughout the Commonwealth. While all of us (and many other attorneys) devote significant amounts of time and resources on a pro bono basis to help families in need, these efforts could be substantially improved by reforms to existing laws and procedures that would make private representation more readily available by providing for attorney fees to prevailing parents, even when a case is settled rather than fully litigated.

Until we provide better access to legal help for families living in poverty and more oversight by DESE, we will continue to have the inequities that your story has brought to light. We hope that this focus of your story will lead to the reforms necessary to protect all students, regardless of income.

Sincerely yours,
James Baron
Robert Crabtree
Joseph Green
Beth Karon Goldberg
Peter Hahn
Daniel Heffernan
Constance Hilton
Carla Leone
Michelle Moor
Alicia Parmentier
Beth Simon
Jill Aubin Updegraph
Charles E. Vander Linden
Lillian Wong
Sherry Gregg
Eileen Haggerty
Melanie Jarboe
Marie Mercier
Kristin Palace
Ellen Saideman
Tim Sindelar
The Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts
The Disability Law Center
Massachusetts Advocates for Children”


See also:   

Former BSEA Hearing Officer Bill Crane writes an excellent analysis of the ruling.

Provides settlements per district (run by parents who have advocated for this transparency)

Posted in BSEA, parent attorneys, SJC, Uncategorized

Tales from an IEP Meeting

Sharing in hopes it may help someone else… Things I learned today as a mom: 1. People will passionately fight to make a child with autism and intellectual disability take a test (MCAS) that they concede he will fail. An easy way out for teachers vs. doing the work of putting together a portfolio. 2. The BACB ethical standards requiring 10% BCBA supervision time for all ABA programming provided is not popular with programs and districts, even when kids need it. It’s also sadly not accepted by some licensed BCBAs who are apparently willing to risk their licenses. 3. Transition meetings are extra-hard. 4. Numbers do matter. 5. Preparing a student to enter the adult world involves a whole village and team of people working together, even grudgingly, in the best interest of the student. 6. There is no perfect program, and finally… 7. It’s ok to discriminate against kids in a certain class at a program’s whim and to give some students favor. “We can’t change anything to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Today showed me, the parent, why I have a job as an educational advocate.

Never stop advocating for your children.  It’s one thing in the journey of being a parent of a child with special needs I DO have control over.  I am a big part of my child’s VOICE and it’s my job to ensure his VISION is met.

Posted in Uncategorized

Helping children, one student at a time

“Laurel Collins is an extremely dedicated and knowledgeable educational advocate. My husband and I were fortunate enough to find Laurel, on recommendation from our daughter’s neuropsychologist and psychologist, within a week of a big IEP meeting. Laurel did not hesitate to immediately dive right in and help us. She reviewed all of our daughter’s evaluations and quickly came up with a successful strategy to get our daughter what she deserved.  We ended up getting an appropriate and strong program our daughter, and this would not have been possible without Laurel.  She is compassionate and collaborative and is an expert in communicating with school systems. Words can not describe how grateful my husband and I are to have Laurel Collins as our educational advocate. We highly recommend Laurel to anyone in search of an advocate for their child.”

-Lisa S., February 2016
My passion lies in supporting children.  My skills best support children in early intervention, early education and preschool, and elementary school.  I have a special place in my heart for working with children with autism (like the little girl mentioned above), Down Syndrome, and developmental delays.

Posted in Uncategorized

Who do I go to for ____?

Parents often ask me to recommend special education professionals.

I’ve compiled a short list of folks I have personally worked with who I have found to be effective, professional, and excellent resources for families.

It can be found here:

Happy New Year!

Posted in Uncategorized

What’s a Facilitated Team Meeting?

In Massachusetts, the Bureau of Special Education Appeals not only conducts the important work of administrative hearings, they do two very important other things. They employ mediators who conduct both mediations and IEP meetings called “Facilitated Team Meetings“.

The mediators are impartials, there to help the parties come to an agreement (mediation) and work collaboratively (FTM).  Both of these processes can be VERY worthwhile when a family is in a dispute with a district. However, both options are voluntary on the part of the school district AND parents.

For a mediation, the mediator always calls/contacts both parties for scheduling purposes. Featured image

In a few recent and disturbing cases, we have seen school districts ask for an FTM, apparently representing to the BSEA that the parents agreed to an FTM when in fact the parents have no idea what an FTM is or if they even have a choice to have an extra person (or two ) present.

Parents’s voices matter. They are supposed to have a voice in these decisions and should feel free to ask questions of a mediator at the BSEA, advocate, or attorney about what the two processes translate to in actual time and content.  A district can’t force a parent to agree to a Facilitated Team Meeting, cancel an already scheduled IEP meeting, or threaten not to hold a meeting without it being an FTM.  Those appear to be intimidation techniques.

Mediations and FTMs can be great tools; the BSEA employs some excellent mediators. Yet, these two processes are not for every family. Parents need to be asked if they agree to participate in a mediation or FTM before a district contacts the BSEA and speaks on behalf of the family.  It’s worthwhile for the (understandably) busy and over-worked, dedicated BSEA staff to follow-up requests for FTMS with parents, as they do with districts.

It’s a reasonable goal to have parents be equally informed members of the IEP team.  We aim to collaborate and find solutions which work for students with disabilities.  Open the lines of communication and always, as a parent, feel free to call the mediator assigned to your district with any questions.  They will answer them graciously.  Be an informed consumer- it’s ok to ask questions.

Posted in Uncategorized

Presume Competence. Always.

12193628_10153729559119294_3472513089276797932_nMy 16 year old son with autism was asked to present at the prestigious Harvard Medical School Child Neurology Conference today.  He did so with the support of a PowerPoint.  I was blown away.  He told the crowd what it feels like to have autism. My follow-up, what he dubbed “my mom’s long speech”, couldn’t compare to his works, his ability to regulate himself to speak in front of a room of strangers.  There were so many excellent physicians, including Ann Neumeyer and Andrew’s neurologist Kristen Lindgren who I both greatly admire, present.  Assume competence. Always. My son- the self-advocate. Awesome.

I spoke about our experiences with medical professionals and how hospitals and doctors can make the experience more autism-friendly.  We feel very fortunate that Andrew receives his care from MGH Hospital for Children from a stellar team of caring and incredibly smart folks.  For a kid with an IQ that tests at 52, I’d say he’s rocking the world.11229762_10206332904555576_4918847498284323052_n

Posted in Uncategorized

You are Not Alone

My job is supporting families.  One has been the most rewarding pieces of the work I do is connecting parents with one another.  It’s easy to feel alone in the special education journey.  What better to do than create an opportunity for your families to meet, the kids to play, and the parents to chat?

Today, I’m hosting an Open House for my little friends at SenseAbility Gym in Hopedale.  So many kids I work with have sensory processing disorder and needs.  Folks, support this hidden gem.

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