Special Needs: Advocating for Educational Rights

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Molly Byrne remembered the moment she realized her fourth-grade daughter was falling behind her peers.

Gracie was diagnosed with dyslexia in the first grade. Three years later, her two younger siblings, Lauren and Gannon, also had been diagnosed with the developmental reading disorder, which often runs in families.

All three children were receiving special-education accommodations from Worthington City Schools as outlined in their individualized education plans, documents that are mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law passed in 2004. Also called an IEP, these plans describe how a student learns and spells out specific data-driven goals for the student's education.

For Byrne, who was new to the world of special education, navigating school meetings, learning new acronyms and becoming an expert on special-education law started to take a toll.

"I had children coming home crying every day because they couldn't do their homework," Byrne remembered. "It was just really overwhelming."

That's when she turned to Brenda Louisin, a child advocate who helped Byrne understand the accommodations that special-education law mandated for her children and how she could work with the schools to receive them.

A child advocate - sometimes called a parent advocate - is a person knowledgeable in special-education law and who can assist families as they interact and negotiate with their schools to formulate plans.

Advocates differ from "parent mentors." Mentors are employed by a school district and also aim to help the family. But a parent advocate is independent from a school district and may have gone through the special-education system with a child of his or her own. Some also have formal training in law, education or, in the case of Louisin, special education.

Byrne said of Louisin: "She's been with me to probably every meeting the past three or four years. I think she's just incredible."

Louisin started advocating for children and families in 2007 after her own experience with her son and his school district.

"I had to rely on outside resources," Louisin said, "and I didn't get the help that I needed in my district."

Louisin provides a variety of services to families based on their needs, including records reviews and consultations before and after school meetings. She said some parents have her attend school meetings with them, especially if there is disagreement.

In those situations, Louisin teaches parents how to reconnect with school officials and re-build trust.

"It's my job to never divide the team," she said, "but bring everyone back together."

While Louisin acknowledges that parents may not always get exactly what they want from a school district, eligible children with learning needs are entitled to an "appropriate" public education as defined by the law, she said.

Louisin charges a $400 retainer fee for five hours of her time, including an initial records review and two additional meetings. After that, she charges a flat hourly fee of $80 for all other services.

Some advocates like Louisin rely on word of mouth to let people know about her business (Byrne got her name from another parent at a tutoring center) but if you're new to the scene, Louisin suggests contacting the Ohio Department of Education's Office for Exceptional Children for references and resources.

After working with Louisin for four years, Byrne said she still faces challenges, but is more confident in school meetings.

"I'm at the point now where I feel I can go into the meetings and I know the language well enough now," Byrne said. "If you don't know, get support and help."