Anyone who thinks special education advocacy is a niche issue should meet Marlies Spanjaard, an attorney affiliated with the EdLaw Project, an initiative of the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts and the Committee for Public Counsel Services – Children & Family and Youth Advocacy Divisions. You’d be surprised – shocked, even – to learn some of the facts she gave me recently.
For example, did you know that only about half of Massachusetts third-grade students score proficient or above in reading on the MCAS? Or that two-thirds of children who can’t read proficiently by the end of fourth grade will end up imprisoned at some point in their lives? Yet in spite of this, only 17% of students in grade K-12 across the state receive special education services.
My background in education, particularly special education, has been an important influence on how I approach the legal profession. Working with children is a powerful reminder that there are members of our society whose voices are largely unheard and whose livelihood and success often depend on the assistance of others. Children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable, and when it comes to their education, it is our responsibility to ensure that their best interests are protected.
With this in mind, I have a particular interest in promoting this cause alongside the BBA’s many other public service initiatives. I was therefore pleased to see that Marlies Spanjaard will lead a Special Education Advocacy pro bono training next week. While I hope you will consider attending any of the many pro bono training that the BBA holds, I focus my blog on this one because it’s an area in which attorneys may not be aware that they can make such a substantive difference.
The failure to deliver special education services to children in need has broad consequences, which come with a heavy price tag for the individuals involved, and also for society as a whole. Children who fall behind are more likely to end up as part of the criminal justice system. The Massachusetts Department of Youth Services states, “annually, there are approximately 6,000 juveniles arraigned in court on criminal charges.” According to the Massachusetts Department of Correction, sending a person to a correctional facility costs taxpayers almost $50,000 per prisoner per year.
This is where the early assistance of an attorney in securing any necessary special education resources can really make a difference. Our pro bono training on Monday will prepare attorneys to help a family navigate the legal system and advocate for them – whether it’s an issue of guiding them through the special education eligibility process or advocating for specific services that a school district may not agree that the child needs. Rather than trying to solve the problem once the child has already started to fall behind, an attorney can work with the family to support their child more immediately after a need has been identified. For low-income families whose children are at risk, this can absolutely change the trajectory of that child’s future.
We talk a lot about pro bono and public service work at the BBA, and we do so because there are so many ways to get involved and it is so important to offer our skills in this way. Particularly around this time of year, I think it’s extremely fitting to think about ways that we can give back to help those who may be less fortunate, or less able to defend themselves. With a new year and a fresh start coming up, there is no better time to consider expanding our commitment to serving others.