Lawyers have their own language. It might be a little frustrating at times, but that is the reason we spend three painful years in law school learning how to think, speak, and write like lawyers. By the time we pass the bar, we have been equipped with a roadmap that allows us to navigate the complex legal arena. Of course, we are not the only profession with its own language. In fact, almost all professions have terminology that is commonly understood by those within the profession, but confusing to those outside of it.
This year I am participating in Boston College’s Juvenile Rights Advocacy program, and I am busy learning yet another language. Do you know what the acronym IEP stands for? Have you ever heard the terms FAPE? What is the difference between the BSEA and OCR? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, don’t worry, many people don’t know them. IEP stands for Individual Education Plan, and as the name suggests, it’s an educational term. The BSEA is a court that is used to resolve education disputes; it stands for Bureau of Special Education Appeals. The OCR stands for Office of Civil Rights, which is another court that can be used for certain types of education related claims. FAPE is a legal term that stands Free Appropriate Public Education, which is a federal right and typically the basis for the claims that would be brought in front of the BSEA or OCR. As for CRA, it is not strictly an education term, however, many children who require specialized education services also require the help that a CRA grants. CRA stands for Child Requiring Assistance, and parents file them with the courts when they need the courts help to supervise their children.
Does this all make sense to you? It shouldn’t! There’s a lot to unpack. The realm of juvenile advocacy is a complex world of jargon and multiple systems that act independently of each other, even though they serve the same population. Get ready to hear something even more jarring: the terms listed above are individual facets of one single client’s case. The client has a special needs child with a combination of learning and emotional disabilities. In order to provide the child an appropriate public education, the school district needs to provide services, which is done through the IEP process. In this particular case (like many cases) there is a disagreement between the school district and the parent about which services the child needs, which has caused the issue to be taken to the BSEA. The child, like many children with similar profiles, also has the Department of Children and Family involved, as well as a CRA, because the nature of her disabilities make it nearly impossible for the parent alone to manage.
Current law students reading this: take a minute to think back to your first day of Civil Procedure. When you were cold-called and the professor asked you what court should the plaintiff file their case in, were you certain of your answer? Was there anything intuitive about it? Think about your Con Law class, when the professor played devil’s advocate. Were you confident enough in your position, or did you fold assuming that the professor knew more than you did? Now imagine being a parent trying to figure out how to file an IEP appeal or argue that their child needs occupational therapy, when the school district’s expert argues that they don’t.
All of us here at BC Law have won the intellectual lottery. We have all achieved a high level of academic success in order to be admitted to law school. While we all come from different social-economic backgrounds, we also need to acknowledge that most of us are in a better financial situation than a large percentage of the population. With all of this working to our advantage, the vast majority of us have had moments were our lives seemed too hard, filled with too much work, and too stressful. Now imagine trying to navigate a system that is equally as confusing as a first-year law class–but instead of being you, you’re a single mother or father working three jobs to make ends meet, or you haven’t graduated high school, or you don’t speak English. How hard would it be then?
The special education and children’s service systems are set up a lot like the legal system, except they have a shockingly lax amount of legal professionals representing parents and children. School districts and children’s service departments have lawyers on retainer, but most parents are forced to navigate these systems by themselves. There is no right to an attorney in many of these cases, and there are not enough lawyers offering their services to families, especially families of low-economic means.
I am participating in the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Program because I believe that as a member of the legal community I have a duty to help make legal services accessible to everyone who needs them. There are numerous populations that are horribly underrepresented, but children are particularly vulnerable. I also think these cases often get overlooked, even by those in the legal field. We know that if someone gets charged with a crime, they need a lawyer. I’m not sure if it’s common knowledge that parents who can’t get the school district to agree to an appropriate IEP also need a lawyer. The consequences of not having good representation in both cases are often the same: incarceration. Children who do not receive appropriate educational and emotional support are much more likely to be court involved and eventually find themselves in jail or prison. You’ve likely heard of the school-to-prison pipeline, but it’s not always the “bad” kid who falls in with the wrong crowd who is at risk. Sometimes it’s the child with a learning disability who didn’t receive the support they needed to succeed in school and found themselves resorting to desperate means to make ends meet in adulthood. Too often it’s the child with untreated mental illness who acts out and finds themselves with a criminal record as a result.
Children are like clay. How they are shaped will lay the foundation for the rest of their lives. So if you’re currently in law school (or when you arrive here), consider taking on some of these cases. Consider JRAP at BC Law. Whether it be through a summer internship, a clinic, or a pro bono project through a law firm, we need more people committing themselves to providing representation for children and their families.
Christina Green is a third-year student at BC Law. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.