By Cindy Atoji Keene
For families of children with special needs, it’s easy to get lost in the maze of endless acronyms, including IHCP, LRE, CST, IDEIA, PWN, to mention just a few. There is also a befuddling maze of terms, such 504 Plan, inclusion, modification, evaluation, and referral. “It’s like a foreign language,” said Beth Ross, a special needs attorney who helps parents navigate the special education process, which she says can be complicated and time-consuming. “There is also so much paperwork involved which can also be overwhelming,” said Ross, who has her own Boston-area law practice.
Whether it’s a school suspension; disagreement over a diagnosis; child who refuses to go to class, or a family who want to make a switch from private back to public school, “many parents want me to become their voice as they have felt so misunderstood,” said Ross. Parents and children have specific rights under state and federal laws, but knowing how they apply to an individual case can be confusing. “I am often a last resort as parents have tried everything else and no longer feel equipped to continue or need another perspective,” said Ross.
Ross is often juggling up to 15 or more cases at a time, writing letters on parent’s behalf, attending team meetings or litigating issues before the Bureau of Special Education Appeals, the education court in Massachusetts. “The child is struggling; parents are upset, worried and angry – this is a recipe for communication difficulty. Sometimes there is a breakdown in trust. My primary goal is to empower parents so they feel more involved, and have a ‘voice,’” said Ross.
Q: Special education law is constantly changing, and there are
several overriding principles that govern. What are these, in your opinion?
A: The key legal concepts that I typically advocate for include: the least restrictive environment (or inclusion); free appropriate public education, and individual needs of child.
Q: What’s an example of a recent case you represented?
A: I worked with a family whose child was incredibly bright but very vulnerable. He was a quirky guy and harassed by kids in the school. His parents were concerned about providing a safe environment for him while still being academically challenged. We went back and forth with the school district, and ultimately he ended up attending a private school, and all parties were comfortable with the outcome. But during the bullying, which started in middle school and continued through high school, it was excruciating to see what this child had to endure.
Q: Why is it so complicated to navigate the special needs process?
A: Many families are uncertain of their legal rights or may be unsure what their child needs. Often they don’t know who to trust from the school district, and may feel outnumbered. Adding to these feelings of instability, they have a child who may be struggling academically and emotionally. It is as if they don’t know what to do first, and often no one from the school is clearly guiding them.
Q: You’re the mother of three children. Have you ever needed to advocate for your own family?
A: My preschooler had an incident that I had an issue with. But as a lawyer, I’ve discovered I can quickly put people on the defensive. My best advice to myself was to wait 24 hours before sending an email. Anything in writing can be wonderful but also held against you.