Special education

Law students help parents exercise their educational rights

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Special education

Photo by: ANDREW DAVIS TUCKER

By sixth grade, Liam Ellis was doing well enough academically to transition from special education into a mainstream classroom. But after one classroom incident related to his Asperger’s syndrome, school officials wanted to send him back to special ed.

“His grades were up and then he had an issue that caused a setback and instead of trying to help him, he basically was put in in-school suspension for a month,” Liam’s mom Pam Ellis says.

Ellis turned to the UGA School of Law for help. Working with law students in the school’s special education racticum, she was able to navigate the public school system policies to keep her son in the regular classroom and receive the services he needs to be a success there.

Directed by Torin Togut, an attorney with the Georgia Legal Service Program, who launched the program at UGA in 2006, the special education practicum provides legal assistance and advocacy to lower-income families with special needs children to ensure their children receive the free, appropriate public education that they are promised under federal law.

While the program provides a valuable service to parents, it also gives students a firsthand look at one area of the law they may be working in once they graduate. The seminar portion of the practicum allows students to discuss their clients’ experiences with Togut and each other.

“I was interested in getting practical experience… I wanted to see how it is in reality,” says Emily Boness (JD ’10), who participated in the practicum.

Law student Sonya Elkins meets with Pam Ellis and her son Liam, 11, at the Georgia Legal Services program office as part of the UGA School of Law’s special education practicum. Elkins and other law students helped Ellis navigate public school system policies so that Liam can receive the services he needs.

The practicum lasts a semester and complements work the students perform in the classroom. The students are assigned in pairs to parents seeking help for their children. They review case files, meet with clients and research laws to build a case to take to school board officials. They also observe Togut in the courtroom and at school meetings.

“Maybe most importantly what they learn is not only skills, but they see their supervisors, who are acting as lawyers. They see people doing what they came here to do,” law school Associate Dean Paul M. Kurtz says.

The special education practicum is one of 12 clinics now offered through the law school to provide students real world experience while earning their degrees.

Boness recalls a father who stopped to thank her after a frustrating, three-hour school meeting.

“He knew it was important to get his son through school, and he appreciated us being there,” she says. “And I thought, this is what it’s all about… this makes it worth it.”

To learn more about the School of Law clinics, go to http://www.law.uga.edu/clinical-programs.