We Connect Now (“WCN”) recently sat down with attorney Barbara Briggs. Ms. Briggs is a graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center where she was a Public Interest Law Scholar. Ms. Briggs presently serves as the Supervising Attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, Inc.’s Educational Advocacy Project.
WCN – What is your general background?
BB – Special education, both undergraduate and graduate work and a law degree. I taught for eight years, high school, junior high and elementary school.
WCN – How did you get involved with special education law?
BB – I was working with a law firm in Washington, DC, Hogan and Hartson. We were working at that time with the McKenzie Group on certain matters. The niece of someone with the McKenzie Group had a mental illness and was in school in Maryland. The niece really disliked school and was involved in non-safe activities. We were able to get her placed in a residential school with psychological services and treatment. The folks at The McKenzie Group told me I should be doing this full-time. I moved to Florida and started practicing in the area of special education law, originally in private practice.
WCN – Where do you work now?
BB – I work for Legal Aid of Palm Beach County, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. I have been there for 15 years, since 1997.
WCN – Who are the clients that you work with?
BB – A lot of my clients are from poor families that don’t believe in mental illness. Untreated mental illness can look like aggression. Sometimes the initial diagnosed act of mental illness can be perceived as a criminal act. I had one client who was a very mentally ill young man who has schizophrenia but his family didn’t believe in mental illness. They wouldn’t keep him on his medication. He kept getting into trouble. He is now in adult prison. Disability is an equal opportunity leveler, but middle class kids can get treatment and don’t end up in the system. Lower-income kids don’t get the treatment they need. Studies show that people with disabilities such as learning disabilities or mental illness make up 11-16% of the general population but 60-70% of the population in jail. A student with this type of disability has a six times greater chance of ending up in the criminal justice system than does the average student. My clients are more male than female. Boys tend to manifest disabilities louder while girls are more withdrawn and less likely to be diagnosed.
WCN – What should parents know?
BB – They should educate themselves on the IDEA [the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] and the IEP [Individualized Education Program] and how to effectively use this. With a good IEP, a kid is less likely to end up in the juvenile justice system. IEP’s need to change over time. If kids aren’t making progress, the goals and objectives need to change. More, or different, related services need to be provided. IEP’s are written annually. If kids are not learning then you need to change things around to make it better whether it’s a different setting, or additional assistance. You need to keep amending the IEP until the definition of a FAPE [Free Appropriate Public Education] is reached.
WCN – What is your role in the process?
BB – The parents retain me. The parents generally exercise the IEP rights on behalf of the child until age 18. I review the records and go to the IEP. Sometimes I am appointed by the Court.
WCN – What is the IEP?
BB- It’s the plan that determines what special education and related services a student with a disability will receive and what goals, objectives, accommodations and modifications are going to be the focus of the child’s schooling that’s written on a yearly basis.
WCN – If you could amend current law to add additional rights or powers, what would you add?
BB – I would want the federal authorities to fully fund special education.
I would also add a provision limiting the ability to use the school police/sheriff’s office to intervene against kids because the acting out is often a manifestation of disability. They use police as a tool to get the kids out of school.
WCN – Do you think that charter schools are adequately serving students with disabilities?
BB – There are many charter schools in Florida. The research at the state and the national level indicate they are not the answer. The quality of charter schools is uneven. They are far less regulated. Charter schools accept less than 5% of the overall population of students with disabilities, and usually only those with mild disabilities. There are some charter schools specifically for students with disabilities, but those are the exception, not the rule. Overall, students with disabilities are being left out of the charter school movement.
WCN – Do many of your clients go to college?
BB – Very few go on to higher education. They have a hard enough time getting through high school.
WCN – What is the most difficult part of your practice?
BB – Seeing my clients go into the delinquency process or to jail. I’ve also lost a couple of clients. One young man shot himself. Another young woman went to a dance club, where she was an innocent bystander in a shooting, and died.
WCN – What are your favorite cases?
BB – Winning reimbursement for families. It’s the kids that keep me motivated. I really like what I am doing. Nothing is static. It’s a roller coaster. Things get better based on good leadership and good economic times but nothing ever stays like that. Now are particularly bad economic times. There have been no raises in a year and teachers are not paid well to begin with, so recently it has been a struggle to get kids what they need to succeed.