2016 Founders Fellowship

The 2016 recipient was Jessica Guinyard, a law student at University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law. 

Final Reflection Essay: Advocates for Justices and Education, Inc. 

The role of the parent advocate is real and powerful. Everyday parents advocate for their children in one way or another. Parents advocate for their children at the park, at the doctor’s office, and before they are even born. An advocate, by definition, is one who actively assists, defends, pleads, prosecutes, speaks, writes or otherwise supports the cause of another. That sounds like a parent, right? The dictionary offers “lawyer” as an example for this definition. However, parents should be added to this list of examples. Advocates for Justices and Education, Inc. (AJE), strives to empower parents to become advocates, in the same way as lawyers.
 
This summer, I had the pleasure of working with an organization that truly believes that parents can serve as advocates for children in special education and discipline law matters. AJE was founded by young law students in order to address the grave injustices and denial of basic special education services, and to educate parents, and those working with parents, about the laws that govern special education and related services. AJE’s mission is to empower parents, families, and the community to be effective advocates. AJE focuses on providing training and information to parents so that they have the knowledge they need to advocate for their children in special education and discipline law matters. AJE offers support groups, leadership training, a resource library, and legal representation. In addition, the attorneys and staff working at AJE all believe in its mission and work towards it every day. By providing parents with the knowledge and skills they need to advocate for their children, AJE has taught me the true meaning of empowerment. Also, the majority of the parents that AJE serves are women. The WBA Foundation Founders Fellowship award has granted me the opportunity to work with a truly impactful and unique organization.
 
My work has consisted of a range of tasks and opportunities. I attended school vouchers meetings and pro-bono attorney trainings. At these meetings and trainings, I was able to witness first-hand how AJE provides knowledge and resources, not only to parents, but also to those interested in advocating on the behalf of parents. Furthermore, I attended advice and counsel sessions. At these sessions, parents without legal representation are provided the opportunity to meet with an AJE attorney. During the sessions, the parent receives advice and counsel on their case before they go into a hearing. These sessions provide parents with the knowledge they need to advocate on behalf of their children at disciplinary hearings. At one particular session, I was able to sit in on the hearing after the parent received advice and counsel. It was amazing to see the impact that the advice and counsel had made. The parent defended her child confidently and successfully. It was great to see first-hand how impactful the advice and counsel sessions are for parents. Lastly, I also completed all of the following: drafted a due process complaint, drafted closing letters, drafted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, and conducted research on various special education and discipline law matters.
 
Furthermore, I have also had the opportunity to work directly with clients by handling client intakes. I have had the opportunity to call and speak to parents who have called AJE for assistance. During these calls, I specifically spoke to mothers and grandmothers who were very passionate about advocating for the special education rights of their children or grandchildren. Sometimes these women expressed frustration, but every time these mothers and grandmothers were ready and willing to learn about how they could advocate for their children and grandchildren.
 
I will now describe, in as much detail as possible, my experience working with the various mothers and grandmothers who sought assistance from AJE. Some of these women only needed temporary assistance, while others needed more long term assistance. I will refer to each of them as Mother One and Grandmother Two, in order to ensure confidentiality.
 
First, I will describe my experience with Mother One. This mother was a single mother, currently working, and raising 3 children on her own. She called in seeking advice and counsel and possible assistance with her youngest son. Her son had wandered out of the classroom and ended up getting lost. The school staff was unable to locate him and asked about his whereabouts over the intercom. Mother One’s daughter heard the message, alerted her teacher that her brother was missing, and left class to call her mother and help find her brother. Mother One's son ended up missing at school twice. Mother One found out about these incidents only when she picked up her son and daughter from school. The school never once contacted her.
 
As I listened to Mother One’s story, I could not help but think about how important it is that parents serve as advocates for children in the school setting. Immediately after the first incident, Mother One researched the best way to handle the situation with the school. She knew that since her son was a student with a disability she could seek a change of placement due to the school's irresponsibility. She called the school inquiring about the incident and expressed her frustration. After speaking to the school, she realized that the school was not in a position to give her son the education and supervision that he needed. This is when she contacted AJE for assistance. I explained the process of changing her son’s placement and the steps she could take to go about doing so. Once she received the knowledge she needed, Mother One was ready to continue to advocate for her son. Throughout my time with AJE, I assisted Mother One in drafting a letter to the school in order to initiate the change of placement process. She could have accomplished the letter on her own, but having a resource like AJE really speeds up the process. All in all, Mother One is a great example of how parent advocacy makes a real difference.
 
Grandmother Two demonstrates another example of the power of the parent advocate. Her daughter had struggled with drugs and had been spending time in a rehabilitation center. During and before this time, she played a huge role in the lives of her daughter and grandchildren. Her grandson was having behavioral issues at school and also was a student with an ADHD diagnosis. Her grandson was getting suspended regularly which had an adverse effect on his education. Grandmother Two contacted AJE for assistance. I’ll always remember the day she came in for her client intake. She was so organized, prepared, and knowledgeable on the subject matter. She literally only needed AJE’s legal resources and knowledge. She walked in already serving in the parent advocate role.
 
Grandmother Two wanted assistance getting her grandson evaluated for special education and related services. I handled all matters relating to Grandmother Two’s case. While working on her case, I drafted emails to the school requesting records and other documents, scheduled meetings, conducted research, and called school personnel. At one particular meeting, I had the opportunity to advocate for Grandmother Two and her grandson by pointing out the school’s violation of the law. Grandmother One also advocated and pointed out violations as well. Working both with Grandmother Two and Mother One gave me the amazing opportunity to watch parent advocacy unfold. It was truly an honor being in a position that allowed me to empower women to be parent advocates.
 
Lastly, I also had the opportunity to draft a due process complaint for another client. This opportunity really helped me use by legal research and writing skills to empower women parent advocates.
 
All in all, I am very grateful to the WBA Foundation Founders Fellowship award for giving me the opportunity to empower women to be parent advocates. The experience was one that I will cherish forever.