Families & the Community

Advocacy for Parents Key to IDEA Case

By Christina A. Samuels — April 11, 2006 9 min read
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The modest building here that houses the southern outpost of the Parent Information Center of New Jersey is just another classroom for Marilyn Arons.

For years, Ms. Arons, 67, has taught parents how to use the main federal special education law to get the most appropriate education for their children. And now, the role of experts such as Ms. Arons is at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court case that will be heard next week.

One night last month, Ms. Arons was serving once again as a human Rosetta stone, translating cryptic government prose into concrete guidance for parents who were preparing for annual reviews of their children’s individualized education programs. Those plans, known as IEPs, guide teachers and schools on educational accommodations for students with disabilities.

Marilyn Arons wraps her arm around Marietta Solimeo at a meeting to help parents navigate the main federal special education law.

A former English and music teacher, Ms. Arons praises, cajoles, and sometimes scolds the dozen or so parents who have come for this session. When school officials make assertions about what the law requires, ask for proof, she tells the parents. Understand your rights. Act like a professional. And most important of all, get everything in writing.

The parents were supposed to have copies of their children’s current IEPs with them. Some were uncertain about what the plans, thick with education jargon, really mean—at least to the satisfaction of Ms. Arons, who is quick to ferret out details or criticize a plan as being too sparse and too general.

“You are lambs being led to the slaughter if you don’t take the time to learn these things,” she says at the end of two hours.

During Ms. Arons’ decades of advocacy with the organization she founded in 1977, she has earned fierce support from parents who say she is one of the main reasons they have been able to successfully fight unresponsive school districts in New Jersey, New York, and Delaware on behalf of their children with disabilities. Ms. Arons and the guidance gleaned from the not-for-profit Parent Information Center help level the playing field, the parents say.

Ms. Arons, a former 1993 independent candidate for New Jersey governor, has also been at the center of several other notable legal challenges, including a Delaware Supreme Court case in which she was accused of the unauthorized practice of law. Now, only lawyers are allowed to represent parents in due-process hearings for special education in that state.

Ms. Arons’ work is about to about to take on national significance. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case April 19 in which it will decide whether a school district must reimburse parents for the fees of experts when the parents prevail in legal disputes with districts over their children’s individualized education programs.

The fees could cover expert witnesses, such as a speech pathologist or clinical psychologist, or, as in this case, a nonlawyer who helped guide parents through the thicket of a special education due-process hearing.

‘A Significant Figure’

The case, which began in 1997, involves New York state’s Arlington Central district of more than 10,000 students, which includes part of the town of Poughkeepsie and eight other towns in the Hudson Valley. Pearl and Theodore Murphy battled the district over the IEP for their son Joseph, now 22, who has multiple learning disabilities. The Murphys successfully argued that the district should pay for his private school tuition. During the due-process proceedings, the parents relied on the expertise of Ms. Arons.

Marilyn Arons speaks with New Jersey parents about how to deal with school districts on special education matters. She is involved in a U.S. Supreme Court case over the role of lay advocates.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act allows parents to recoup “reasonable attorneys’ fees as part of the costs” if they prevail in an IEP due-process hearing. A federal district judge sliced the Murphys’ request for reimbursement for Ms. Arons’ services from $29,350 to $8,650, saying that she should only be paid from the time the Murphys requested a due-process hearing until the date that the court ruled in the family’s favor in the tuition dispute.

In a ruling last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, affirmed the district judge’s award of expert consulting fees.

In the district’s appeal in Arlington Central School District v. Murphy (Case No. 05-18), the district argues that the federal special education law does not authorize the award of fees for experts, because the law makes no explicit reference to them. The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the district.

Lawyers for the Murphys say that the special education law, which states that attorneys’ fees may be awarded to parents as “part” of the costs of the dispute, showed Congress’ intent that attorneys’ fees not be the only possible costs awarded. They add that it is nearly impossible for parents to win cases under the IDEA unless they have such experts on their side, and that only the possibility of getting back some of their expenses for such help would allow parents to challenge school districts.

No solid figures are available on how many parents choose to represent themselves in due-process hearings, compared with how many are represented by lawyers or lay advocates, said Perry A. Zirkel, a professor of education law at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. He is also a state hearing officer in Pennsylvania for special education disputes.

The availability of lawyers, and of lay advocates, varies tremendously from state to state, and even within states, where experts in special education law are often concentrated in metropolitan areas, Mr. Zirkel said.

The Parent Grapevine

What is clear is that once someone becomes known as an advocate for parents and children in special education cases, the parent grapevine spreads the name near and far.

That’s how Ms. Arons got started. A graduate of Alma College in Alma, Mich., with a degree in music education, Ms. Arons was a high school English teacher when her daughter, Melody Arons, was born in 1968 with severe learning disabilities. Doctors told her that Melody should be institutionalized, but Ms. Arons fought for an education for her daughter while the IDEA was still in its infancy.

In 1975, Ms. Arons, her husband, Raymond, a professor of public health at Columbia University in New York City, and Melody moved to Teaneck, N.J. Ms. Arons became a private music teacher, and her son Jonathan, was born there.

Soon after the move, Ms. Arons founded the Parent Information Center of New Jersey as a resource for families. The center has never received government funding because that would require it to conform to someone else’s agenda, she said. The center was first located only in Teaneck, and the southern New Jersey office here in Palmyra opened in 1995.

Most of the funding for the center and its advocates comes from membership fees of $75 a year from the 100 to 125 dues-paying families, said Maura A. Collinsgru, the center’s executive director, as well as from fees for individual consultations with parents who request such services.

A very small percentage of the funding comes through fees for consultation services provided to parents who prevail in due-process hearings, the types of payments that are at the center of the Supreme Court case, Ms. Collinsgru said.

Ms. Arons no longer has a day-to-day role in running the center, and has not taken on a case representing parents since about 1999, she said. Her work now is primarily with the Melody Arons Center for Applied Preschool Research and Education, in her home in Teaneck.

It is named for her daughter, who eventually graduated from high school, lived independently, and was working as a bank clerk when she was killed in 1997 at age 29 by her ex-boyfriend, who then took his own life.

‘Tough Love Philosophy’

Ms. Arons still runs periodic parent-support group meetings to ensure that the tenets of the organization she founded are followed. During her active years at the center, she participated in 300 due-process hearings, she estimates, and helped parents in many thousands more cases.

If she seems a little tough on parents, it’s not for lack of sympathy, Ms. Arons said.

“We’ll hug and kiss in this organization, a lot. But I’ll swat you on the ass and tell you to get your act together [too]. It’s a tough-love philosophy,” she said.

Jeffrey J. Schiro, a Bedford Village, N.Y., lawyer who has represented the Arlington Central district in the case, is not sure that lay advocates like Ms. Arons are really necessary, at least in his region of the country.

Mr. Schiro described Ms. Arons as a prepared and capable representative for the Murphys. But the states of New York, New Jersey, and Delaware “are not known for having a shortage of attorneys,” he said. In his eight years of representing school districts in special education disputes, Mr. Schiro said, he has found it is the rare parent who is not represented by a lawyer. There are also resources available for low- and moderate-income parents, he said.

A lack of adequate representation for parents is an argument that “may resonate in other areas of the country,” he said, “but it doesn’t have the same resonance here.”

But Ms. Arons’ work can be wider-ranging than that of an expert who is brought in to examine a child and provide an assessment. The Parent Information Center offers services to families who would not otherwise be able to afford lawyers, who in the Northeast may charge $300 to $400 an hour or more for their services.

“One of the reasons our model has never been accepted by anybody, except by the people who need us, is because we take care of the poor,” Ms. Arons said.

Discipline in Delaware

In some cases, that advocacy work has caused consternation among lawyers. In 1996, several Delaware school district lawyers charged Ms. Arons and Ruth Watson, then the director of the center, with the unauthorized practice of law for representing five families in the state in due-process hearings.

When the case reached the Delaware Supreme Court, the U.S. Department of Justice, under President Clinton, filed a brief on Ms. Arons’ side, arguing that the IDEA entitles “lay persons with special knowledge or training” to advocate for parents in such hearings. The Justice Department said it was the long-held view of the U.S. Department of Education that lay advocates could represent parents in due-process hearings.

The Delaware high court rejected the federal government’s view, ruling in 2000 that the IDEA “cannot be interpreted as providing any clear right to lay representation.” Ms. Arons and the center were ordered to cease representing parents in the state.

The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear it.

Ms. Arons said she has a lot that she could say about the pending Supreme Court case, but she feels she must refrain on advice from lawyers.

Meanwhile, she said, she is still actively working on behalf of children with disabilities, even though she no longer runs the Parent Information Center. The Murphy case was one of the last she handled as an advocate. Now, she focuses on training other parents to take up the mantle.

“The only way you’ll ever have an impact on the system is that parents have to train to be professionals,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as Advocacy for Parents Key to IDEA Case

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