A Father’s Legacy to Special Education Advocacy

Published on June 21, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano


On this Father’s Day, I can’t help but be a little sad.  Much as I will try to spend today letting my husband know how much our daughters and I appreciate him as a father, today is the anniversary of my own father’s death.  Seven years ago today, and in many ways, it feels like yesterday.

I have been feeling particularly nostalgic about my dad lately, as I have recently embarked on “blogging” about the issues surrounding special education advocacy.  In that process, as in my practice as a special education attorney, I often become wistful, wishing I could share with him my latest success, disappointment, or rant, or simply to analyze a case that just came out with him.

My late father, William M. Laviano, was a civil rights attorney to the core.  He “fell into” special education law when a client he was representing in an employment discrimination matter asked him if he would represent him in an emergency IEP meeting for his son, who had ADHD and had gotten into some disciplinary trouble in school.  Curious, my father went, and immediately sensed that this was a field where the “establishment” was getting away with violating the law on a regular basis.  He was instantly offended by how the parents were treated, how the school district ignored their legal obligations, and in general, how unfair the special education “system” appeared.

He was hooked.

So began a dedication on my father’s part to “take on” school districts and how they treated students with disabilities.  He never gave up practicing other types of civil rights litigation, but he became especially passionate about this area of the law.  My dad was a force to be reckoned with in every way:  a large, imposing, Italian litigator.  He really looked like he was out of central casting to play the role of the intimidating cross-examiner.  Let’s just say that the special education administrators in Connecticut had no idea what they were in for!

My father shook the special education establishment here quickly and thoroughly, and he took names.  I don’t think a month passed that the State Department of Education wasn’t busy trying to comply with his latest Freedom of Information Request.  The niceties of IEP Team Meetings were lost on him, and he had no problem telling someone that they were “full of crap,” to their face.  I can still hear him yelling “If I hear one more teacher tell me that a kid has to take ‘OWNERSHIP’ of their program I’m going to spit….OWNERSHIP, what horseshit!”  He swore like crazy, and loved the line from Inherit the Wind where Attorney Henry Drummond (based on Clarence Darrow) thunders “I don’t swear just for the hell of it! Language is a poor enough means of communication. I think we should use all the words we’ve got!  Besides, there are damn few words that anybody understands!”

My father had an encyclopedic recall of both the IDEA and the cases interpreting it, and the creativity to find different ways to argue it still.  He was a formidable opponent.  He was also a whirling dervish.

Soon into practicing special education law, dad realized that he had spent his entire life with undiagnosed ADD.  He had skipped grades because he was so smart, and graduated near the top of his law school class without taking a single note, and yet he wouldn’t be able to organize a file with a gun to his head!  He was brilliant, incredibly funny, irreverent, loving and intolerable.  As one of his clients said when he died “Bill Laviano could pick a fight in an empty room!”  My sister once asked his doctor to prescribe his Ritalin in blow dart form.

So, what does it mean to me to be a second generation special education attorney?

Well, in many ways, wonderful things.  It means it’s in my blood, and that I have a long, long history with the ways in which these cases play out, both on an informal and formal basis.  I know the “players” in Connecticut in a way I never would have, if it weren’t for my dad.  I was attending IEP meetings, mediations and Due Process Hearings with him in high school, college and law school.  There is just no way to calculate the many ways in which I have benefited from having been practically raised to practice special education law.

And yet…

In many more ways, it makes me so angry that there should continue to be such a need for special education attorneys.  Here I am, more than twenty years after my father took on his first special education case, and I am still fighting the same fights, taking on the same issues, and seeing the same injustices that he saw all those years ago.  While I know he would be proud of what I’m doing, and that he was before he passed, I don’t think he envisioned when he took on that first case in the late 1980s that his daughter would have to keep waging these same battles.  And that I would still hear administrators excuse a child’s poor performance by saying that he isn’t “taking ownership” of his special education program!

What I do know, however, is that if he were here, he would be fighting too.  And likely winning.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

10 Responses to A Father’s Legacy to Special Education Advocacy

  1. Daisy
    June 21st, 2009 | 3:29 pm

    I wish I knew someone like you or your dad who lived near us. We bring an advocate to our meetings, and my mom takes notes on her laptop, but we’ve never brought along an attorney – yet.

    On behalf of many parents, I say Thanks for all you do, have done, and will do in the future!

  2. RobinHausmanMorris
    June 21st, 2009 | 6:45 pm

    Your father’s reputation preceded his name. Although I never had the opportunity to meet him, I knew he was defined here by his dedication to the children.
    Father’s day is so personal. We own our memories. I wrote about mine today. It’s a good thing, sometimes painful, but a legacy of aspiration.

  3. dora
    August 26th, 2009 | 4:33 am

    i want to thank you to i have a veary bad problem her were the my kid isnt getting the help that he needs and this is sad wathcing my child go throught all of this trying to make him feel like a miss fit teachers dont want to deel with him ho wcan i get help im from michigan

  4. Pam Wright
    May 9th, 2010 | 10:19 pm

    Jennifer: This is a wonderful story about your dad. I remember when he and your mom came to the 2000 Summer Summit that Pete and I hosted in our little village of Deltaville VA. Within minutes, he met and greeted the other participants and was engaged in solving problems.

    Your dad reminded me so much of my dad – a force to be reckoned with! No excuses, no whining, no complaining. My dad taught me how to cuss, fight, drink … and how to waltz.

    Not a day passes that I don’t miss him. I wish he was here to see the work Pete and I do. Teaching at William & Mary Law School? Oh my gosh – he would be over the moon with pride.

    Thanks for writing a great story about Bill Laviano. We miss him too.

    Pamela Darr Wright

  5. Jennifer Laviano
    May 10th, 2010 | 7:46 pm

    Pam, how very kind of you to leave this comment! I remember when he went on that trip to your place, and I remember him being so energized by being around the “movers and shakers” in special education legal advocacy. He was all abuzz when he returned! I so appreciate your kind words, and thank you and Pete for the hard work you do EVERY DAY on behalf of kids with disabilities. Warmest regards, Jen

  6. Rochelle
    June 21st, 2010 | 1:54 am

    You are fortunate to have had a father who earned people’s respect.

    I can’t say that about mine. But, what I can say is that, if he hadn’t been who he was, there’s no way I’d be strong enough to stick with what has been chosen for my girls these past 6 years.

    I just wish there were people in Utah willing to do what your Dad did … the legacy you continue.

    My sincerest respect to both of you.

  7. Doreen Bentley
    November 12th, 2010 | 10:28 am

    Hi Jennifer: Just wanted to thank you for your advocacy work for children in CT. I work with dyslexic students and am stunned and disgusted by the lack of knowledge of this subject by our public educators and yes, special education educators and administrators (despite 30 years of published scientific data defining dyslexia and what works!). I often work with high school students who are branded by years of negative labels and often believe they are stupid–all because no one provided early identification and proper remediation! It is such an unnecessary travesty. I’d say it’s high time our children had unions representing them in school too!

  8. Nan Waldman
    October 27th, 2011 | 1:55 pm

    Jennifer —

    Thank you for posting this blog. I am convinced parents are the greatest potential assets any child can have, and you were so very fortunate to have a father capable of modeling the inspiring work we do as lawyers and advocates — and parents!

    I hope every parent who wants to improve their advocacy skills does so, and that we all, together, demand more than ‘some’ educational progress for every student. An “adequate” education is clearly inadequate for every human being, and is also insufficient if our country is going to succeed competitively in this new world.

    Like you, I have spent more than 20 years hearing the same old excuses and discriminatory rationale imposed on hapless parents and defenseless students. I’m sick of it!

    I wish we could find somewhere to Occupy, and protest, en masse, but in an organized and targeted manner.

    All the best to you. And thank you, again, for describing such excellent parenting in education!

  9. Christopher Alterio, Dr.OT, OTR
    December 1st, 2012 | 10:10 am

    Great site, Jennifer – and I enjoyed reading your story about your inspiration from your Dad. Thank you for fighting the good fight.