By Jen Masi
Across DC, more than 13,000 students have special education needs. But getting the right education to meet those needs is a far reach for many. More often than not, students and their families call on lawyers to ensure they get the right evaluation, plans and services to put their child on track. And the urgency to ensure children’s special education needs are met has skyrocketed over the past 18 months as many students are waiting for delayed evaluations or haven’t received the services they deserve due to virtual learning barriers.
Attorneys Steve Harvey and Keith Howard have known each other since 2004. They shared the same passion from the start of their legal careers – pursuing justice for low-income families by representing children in special education cases. Since 2017, they have partnered together to represent students with special education needs in over a dozen pro bono cases for Children’s Law Center.
Special education cases can present a number of challenges — obtaining student records from schools, navigating negotiations with opposing counsel, and persuading hearing officers and judges who may otherwise be more inclined to defer to decisions made by school districts. But these complexities only serve to motivate Steve and Keith, each of whom has practiced special education law for more than 15 years.
Keith learned civil rights and special education law as a practitioner with Legal Aid of North Carolina, and he now manages The Law Offices of Keith L. Howard, PLLC. Steve’s practice at The Harvey Law Group, PLLC grew to encompass juvenile and adult criminal cases, as well as special education matters. “I was drawn to pro bono cases related to students with special education needs because of the significant needs of these students and families,” shares Steve. “I noticed that many of my clients with juvenile or criminal matters needed special education and related services as students but did not receive them; this prevented them from developing the critical life skills (in reading, writing, and math) that would have helped them transition from childhood to adulthood.”
Steve’s observation underlines why pro bono representation in special education cases is so important for many children: Special education services can make all the difference for a child with a disability or behavioral issue. It can mean the difference between a child feeling recognized and supported or a lifetime of academic and social frustration.
“Special education services – for example, securing compensatory education, ensuring a school evaluates a child, or making sure a school follows a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) – could take a child on a trajectory of dropping out to successfully going to college,” says Keith. “It also reminds school districts that they cannot simply ignore the rights of parents of students with disabilities. There is a consequence to their denial of the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). It matters because it also shows students that no matter their disability or socioeconomic status, someone cares and there are lawyers that will fight for them.”
In a recent pro bono case, Steve and Keith fought to ensure that a DC student experiencing physical and behavioral health issues received the services he needed to continue his education. “During the 2019-20 school year, our client suffered debilitating and disabling migraines which caused him to miss almost every school day that year,” says Steve. The child battled health issues like migraines, stomach pain, and emotional depression daily, and he had an IEP intended to help him accommodate his diagnoses.
Nevertheless, “his school didn’t provide him any homebound or hospital instruction despite his mom’s verbal and written pleas for this help,” shares Steve. “Therefore, the child was denied a FAPE during the 2019-20 school year.” The school even threatened to unenroll the child if he did not make himself present.
In partnership with the student’s mom, Steve and Keith advocated for the child, filing a due process complaint against the school for, among other things, denying the child an appropriate IEP. Ultimately, they were successful, and the hearing officer instructed the school to update the IEP to provide appropriate special education services; develop a behavior intervention plan for the child; and give the child 300 hours of compensatory education for missed services.
To Steve and Keith, this victory for their client emphasizes the importance of ensuring kids with disabilities receive appropriate services – and the need for more attorneys to represent children with disabilities in pro bono special education cases.
“A student with a physical or behavioral health issue will not be able to access a FAPE without proper accommodations and supports for that student in his or her IEP,” shares Keith. The good news? These supports can be made available. “The school may offer homebound instruction, counseling services, or tutoring as options for that student to access a FAPE.”
Steve agrees that ensuring students with disabilities have access to the services and supports to which they are entitled can be a crucial role for pro bono attorneys. “So many children and indigent families are not being served, and if other attorneys knew of the many pro bono opportunities available to them to support children with disabilities, then many more would engage in pro bono,” he says. “I am thankful that organizations like Children’s Law Center exist to provide pro bono services for indigent families — CLC Supervising Attorney Jani Tillery has always been available and willing to mentor us as needed and is an excellent resource for pro bono attorneys. Pro bono service is our way of providing meaningful help to families and children in need of special education and related services.”
As DC students returned to in-person learning this fall — for most, for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began — the need for more pro bono attorneys has never been more urgent. Many children with disabilities did not receive the services outlined in their IEPs while learning from home, and the need for special education-related evaluations has only grown.
Pro bono attorneys like Steve and Keith are essential to making sure DC kids get the help they need to learn and thrive — and their commitment to serving low-income families makes them leaders to others in our legal community.
Both attorneys recognize the far-reaching impact of their service. “I would say this is a worthwhile endeavor to help our future generation as children,” says Keith, “so that they can lead full lives as adults and help contribute to, and build, a stronger nation.”
Jen Masi is Pro Bono Director at Children’s Law Center.