Part 18 of Our Award-Winning Series “Our Children’s Health”
For many families with children who have special needs, that might just be the agenda.
On Long Island, it is estimated that between 11 and 14 percent of students are in the special education system; add to that the large number of children who have unaddressed disabilities or problems that are not addressed properly by the district. In some cases, parents will be able to obtain all the services they need, and they will be able to work cooperatively with their school district’s special education department. In other cases, parents will find themselves in an adversarial position with their district, and they will need help.
Rita Lenz, of North Bellmore, experienced both sides of advocacy. Her son Michael is autistic and was classified as such in kindergarten. Lenz had positive interaction with the North Bellmore Union Free School District, where Michael attended school in his early years. For Lenz, it was a cooperative relationship. Her son was part of an inaugural program for autistic children. But when it was time for Michael to attend middle school, in the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District, where 10.4 percent—the low average—of the students are classified as special ed, everything changed.
“They were not equipped to service Michael correctly,” Lenz explains.”They just didn’t have a proper placement for him.” As is happening with many autistic children, transitioning is problematic.
Lenz says she found it “difficult to get communication lines open with the district.” Realizing the battle would be emotionally draining and time-consuming, she hired a lawyer who specializes in fighting for the rights of children with special needs—Doreen Cordova.
When Cordova takes on a case, as gentle as her demeanor seems, she will not take “no” for an answer. “I try not to be adversarial,” she explains.”I just want [the districts] to do the right thing for these students.”
And that’s just what she did for Michael Lenz, who is now 12. He now has the services an autistic child his age needs.
“They didn’t realize the transitional needs Michael had,” says his mother. “As a parent it was very, very hard to get that across to them without Doreen’s help.”
While Michael was classified with a disability since kindergarten, 15-year-old James’ battle didn’t really begin until much later—in high school. According to James’ mother, Linda Burns (their names have been changed in this article), their district, the Hicksville Union Free School District—where 12.6 percent of students are classified for special ed—refused to classify him for services and only allowed modifications under the 504 plan, which provides accommodations to students with special needs who are not classified as special education students. Burns says that she knew that her son, who has central auditory processing disorder, required “deep” services such as speech and language rehabilitation, and so began her heated fight with the district. (The director of special education for HUFSD was on vacation when called by the Press and was unavailable for comment.)
“I went to meeting after meeting, getting so frustrated,” Burns recalls. “Finally they gave me a flat-out ‘no!’ so I hired Doreen Cordova, who not only turned out to be incredibly effective and well-informed, she was so humane. She fought this through her knowledge and her heart. She cares about these kids. And once Doreen had them provide the proper testing we needed, and the results showed he needed help, the services [James] required came.”
Cordova is one of a few lawyers on Long Island specializing in school advocacy, and through her South Hempstead private practice, Cordova & Associates, she provides special education legal services Islandwide.
Cordova is wholly devoted to the cause. She doesn’t charge those who can’t afford her services; she has a sliding-scale fee to accommodate clients’ needs; she works seven days, “all day long”; and most importantly, clients have her “for the long run.” The school district might want to give up on a child, she says, but she won’t.
“These parents have to have an attorney,” she warns. “They cannot do it on their own.
“Parents, for the most part, are not knowledgeable in educational law. They have enough to be concerned about. They can’t look at an evaluation and say it is fine. They need someone who knows the law.”
Cordova’s large desk is full of files. All represent the quality-of-educational-life cases she’s currently handling, many pro bono. (In those court cases where parents prevail against their school distrct, legal fees are reimbursed by the district.)
The adjoining room is filled with colorful toys for children to play with, while their often distraught, on-the-edge parents are pouring their hearts out to Cordova, who is often the first sympathetic ear the parents have come across. The soft-spoken Cordova says she has prevailed in about 95 percent of her cases, in an amicable fashion. It’s easy to believe.
Unlike some lawyers who will only take on court cases, or some lay advocates, who will only advise a parent prior to a committee on special education (CSE) meeting at the school, Cordova does it all. She attends CSE meetings in an attempt to head off future litigation. She has a simple credo when it comes to dealing with the many school districts she works with: “They know I’m not there for the fight. I’m there for the well-being of the child.”
But if it’s a fight they want, she’ll give it to them. And so will Andrew Cuddy, an attorney in upstate Auburn, N.Y., who specializes in cases regarding special education. Cuddy, the author of The Special Education Battlefield, takes on mostly the court cases. He, like Cordova, emphasizes that these are not luxuries parents expect their child to receive—these are required federal and state services for what the federal government calls an “appropriate education.”
“Parents are most vulnerable when dealing with special education issues with their districts,” Cuddy explains. “Districts withhold information and misrepresent a child’s rights and needs. Districts have their own [budgetary] best interests in mind.” Cordova agrees: “They’re afraid it will open the floodgates if they give a child services. But providing these services is [legally] not supposed to be a budgetary concern. ”
Cuddy says, “It’s a very good idea to at least have an advocate”—usually a parent advocate, a lay person trained to deal with the special education system, or a lawyer. “Parents are the best advocates,” he says, “but they are too intertwined with all their emotions. Districts take on techniques at a meeting to set off those emotions to force parents to reel back and stop advocating.”
One parent who didn’t stop advocating is Fran Quinn of Plainedge, whose son, Nolan, 15 needs services and is an honor student. He began with 504 modifications and now has a full Individualized Education Plan (IEP), part of the special ed program.
“Some people ask me why my son needs services if he’s getting such high grades,” Quinn says. “I explain that he gets those high grades because of the services he receives.” Quinn has never had a need for an outside advocate.
“I learned everything I could,” she explains, “and I am very secure when I attend the meetings even though they can be very distracting, very scary and intimidating. It’s one person against 12. But from day one, you need to be on top of things.” Quinn does admit that it’s easy for a parent to get all riled up or “all weepy” at a CSE meeting and lose focus.
For even the most well-prepared person, such as Quinn, a CSE meeting can be a dizzying affair, with papers shifting, specialists jabbering and your child’s future on the line. “It’s easy for parents to go blank,” says Cuddy.
“That’s exactly why you need a lawyer,” says Lenz, the parent of the autistic son who was not receiving services he required.
“By having an advocate there,” says Cuddy, “the parent isn’t so personally involved. They can hear and respond, and their emotions don’t interfere with their thought process.”
Why does it have to go this far? Cordova and Cuddy both say it is a combination of reasons: budgets, not fully understanding a child’s disability, poor testing by the school district, and one that is even worse, according to Cordova: “Schools allow failure.
“It’s unacceptable,” she adds.
Recently, there was a slight glitch in James Burns’ services. His mother contacted the school and she says they once again gave her a hard time.
“Do you want me to bring the lawyer back?” she says she asked.
Linda Burns’ request was honored the following day.
Doreen Cordova, Esq.
Cordova & Associates, P.C.
Andrew K. Cuddy, Esq.
VESID’s Long Island Parent Center
887 Kellum St., Lindenhurst
New York State Education Department
Advocates for Children of New York
NYS Parent Network