The Mithoff Pro Bono Program and the Thurgood Marshall Legal Society have teamed up to help parents of children in special education understand their legal rights, navigate the complicated process of securing special education services, and work collaboratively with school districts to improve the education of low-income children in special education. The work has particular relevance for children of color, who are often disproportionately disciplined for behavior stemming from disability and/or lack of appropriate services. SPEAK (Supporting Parents’ Education, Advocacy, and Knowledge) is part of the Mithoff Program’s INCLUDE disability law project, an initiative to advance the rights of persons with disabilities and involve law students in the disability rights movement.
“The law students volunteering with SPEAK have had really wonderful experiences working with parents in Austin’s black and brown community through the creative curriculum we developed last year,” said third-year student Kiah DeBolt, the TMLS Community Services Chair and TMLS project lead for SPEAK. SPEAK was created last year and students successfully served parents at evening clinics offered in partnership with Huston-Tillotson University. In 2018-19, SPEAK will expand to offer four distinct modules to parents interested in learning about their rights and practicing their negotiation skills. “We are overjoyed to be able to offer the SPEAK trainings again, in fuller form and with more parents through our new partnership with the Austin Independent School District,” said Mithoff Pro Bono Scholar Julia Wang, a second-year student who will spearhead SPEAK this year. “Parents who cannot afford lawyers – or do not wish to involve them – should have a right to understand special education law. Without that understanding, their children will continue to be held back.”
“This is pro bono at its best,” says Professor Lucy Wood, who leads INCLUDE. “Law students educate parents and share with them some of the skills that they are learning here in law school. When parents can themselves push for changes that benefit children, everyone wins.”