By: Laura Stelianou, J.D. ’19
Before law school, I was a kindergarten teacher and about one third of my students had disabilities. I helped implement and develop plans to meet their individualized needs. I earned a master’s degree in special education. Yet, my coursework did not focus on the law and I was far from fluent in the specific rights of students with disabilities. The families of many of my students similarly did not know all of the rights afforded to children with disabilities and some felt a lack of agency during special education meetings. Our laws nonetheless rely heavily on families to participate in the special education process and, when necessary, advocate for their children’s rights. For families with fewer re- sources, whose home language is not English, or whose children have experienced adverse experiences, it can be particularly daunting to navigate the system. I knew when I started at Harvard Law School that I wanted to participate in the Education Law Clinic to gain a better understanding of special education law and support families to advocate for their children.
Through the Education Law Clinic, students engage in individual special education advocacy as well as systemic change projects to ensure that children who have endured adverse childhood experiences succeed in school. My clinical experience taught me that knowledge of the law is an incredible, albeit limited, source of power.
In the Clinic, I represented a high school student whose school district failed to provide an appropriate school placement, which left him with minimal access to education for many months. The student, who is incredibly bright, funny, and introspective, said he wanted to graduate “no matter what it takes.” This would be impossible without an appropriate placement. With the help of an expert and the support of the Education Law Clinic, the student is now closer to achieving his goal of graduating. For our systemic change project, students in the clinic traveled to community service agencies across the state, including agencies in Lawrence, Taunton, and Dorchester, to give trainings on education law. We trained providers such as family partners and care coordinators, who teach and assist families to access re- sources and services including special education. I was struck by the strong engagement of the providers at the trainings. More than once, after we presented an aspect of the law, providers expressed surprise that certain rights existed or shared anecdotes of schools’ failure to comply with students’ rights. Many expressed a sense of empowerment and shared their plans to reference aspects of the law in the future to support students.
Knowledge of special education law was a source of power in my clinic work, but educational inequities remain even when families are equipped with knowledge. In our clinical course, we discussed ways that education laws operate unequally. For example, while some families can ensure appropriate placements for their children by changing a placement immediately, paying for it themselves, and later advocating for reimbursement from the school district, many families lack the resources to pursue that option. Independent evaluations help inform students’ placements. Families with knowledge and resources can access experts for independent evaluations, while others face long waitlists or cannot afford high quality experts. In our clinical course, we also discussed racial inequities in education, including disparate rates of school discipline for students of color. Relatedly, I observed the way that educational disparities influence children’s experiences when I interned with a juvenile judge through Harvard’s Child Advocacy Clinic. I witnessed several instances in which children’s educational opportunities were tied to their involvement with the juvenile justice or child welfare systems.
My experience in Harvard’s clinics has empowered me with a fluency in special education law that I can now use to both enforce rights and teach others. After law school, I plan to work in education law and advocate for educational equity broadly. On an individual level, if I have children, this will mean making appropriate choices about where they go to school and advocating for all children in the school. I encourage my fellow graduates to join me in considering their role in promoting educational equity as they educate their own families.