By Amy Landsman
When you talk to the leaders of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), the one phrase that keeps coming up is “level the playing field.”
Here’s just one example: “COPAA’s main mission is to level the playing field for parents, through access to resources, information, and to this network of professionals,” says Denise Marshall, executive director of COPAA.
A nonprofit organization, COPAA is made up of lawyers, special education consultants, psychologists, reading tutors, other educational professionals, and ordinary parents determined to—here’s that phrase again—level the playing field between families and schools.
Not only are many COPAA members lawyers, but many are also parents of children with disabilities themselves, so they have a passionate interest in special education law.
Although COPAA is based in Towson, much of its work takes place in cyberspace, as members nationwide share ideas and strategies. In many ways, COPAA is a lifeline for families as they try to navigate a complex system.
“I think what parents aren’t prepared for is how complicated the special education system is. It requires learning a lot about the system, which some parents are able to do on their own…and some families need advocacy in the process,” says Leslie Margolis, a COPAA board member.
In the public schools, students with disabilities have Individual Education Plans, known as IEPs. These legal documents spell out the annual educational goals for the child. They also specify how those goals will be achieved.
The IEP details are worked out in a team meeting, usually attended by the child’s parents, teachers, therapists, and other interested professionals.
In theory, the parents and professionals meet as equals.
In truth, however, there’s a terrible “imbalance of power,” says Jessica Butler, COPAA board chairman.
“A parent comes to the IEP table surrounded by specialists, and that’s an incredibly intimidating situation,” Butler says.
“There is nothing as humbling as sitting in the parent chair…It’s difficult to hear about all the things your child can’t do,” notes Selene Almazan, a COPAA board member..
“It should be a much more collaborative process. Our primary goal is to have school districts and parents collaborate as equals,” Butler adds.
Learning the Law
How does COPAA achieve that goal? The organization can’t send an attorney to sit by every parent’s side at each team meeting. (There is, however, a directory of lawyers and advocates with expertise in special education on COPAA’s website.) Instead, COPAA members share information about special education law. The idea is that the more lawyers and families know about special education law, the better able they’ll be to advocate on behalf of kids.
Most disputes between families and schools are resolved without an attorney, and those where a lawyer is on board are generally settled before a trial. But there’s always the chance the case will go before a judge. In those instances, COPAA wants to make sure the family’s attorney is as prepared as possible.
“If an attorney is under-prepared or doesn’t know the law, and a precedent is set, it hurts the community as a whole,” Butler explains.
The community of lawyers and advocates who represent children with disabilities has really grown since COPAA’s founding in 1988.
“When I first joined COPAA, there was one attorney in Utah. There was one in Nevada. There was no one in Kansas City,” Butler says. “We now have attorneys and advocates in those states. Maryland has a lot of attorneys, but there are gaps. Low-income families have little access to representation, and the more rural parts of the state have fewer attorneys with the expertise in special ed law.”
In addition, COPAA adds its voice when Congress considers legislation protecting the educational and civil rights of children with disabilities. It also files “friend of the court” briefs on legal cases that could impact a wide group of families.
Members of COPAA emphasize that they are not seeking special privileges for kids with disabilities. Instead, they are fighting for basic rights to which the children are entitled, such as ending the use of restraints, moving kids out of self-contained classrooms, achieving reading goals, and receiving speech and language services.
In a perfect world, there would be mutual cooperation between families and schools.
But, as Butler says, the real world doesn’t work that way. For now, the playing field remains unequal.
“My goal would be eliminating COPAA in 10 years because every child had access to a free, appropriate public education. But unfortunately that’s not really going to happen. Too many parents are stonewalled. Too many parents can’t get what their children need to have maximum independence by the time they’re 21,” Butler says. BC
To learn more about the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), visit its website, www.copaa.org, or call 410-372-0208.
@ Baltimore's Child Inc. February 2008