There is Good on Both Sides of the Fence

Published on June 16, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano


I have mentioned before that I am a second generation special education attorney.  My late father represented children with special needs, and I mentored under and learned from him for many years before becoming a lawyer myself.  My dad had a lot of favorite quotations from others, and more than a few of his own that are worth remembering.  This Sunday will mark 7 years since he died;  ironically, this anniversary falls on Father’s Day this year.  So, in his honor, I thought I might take a moment to share one of his own quotes about special education law:

“Jen,” he would say, “never forget, there is good on both sides of this fence.”

What he meant by that was that, for all of the parents’ attorneys and advocates out there who were fighting daily to secure appropriate special education programs, there are also many educational professionals and school district advisers, including some board attorneys, who were trying very hard to do the right thing, too.

Coming from my dad, this was pretty powerful, since he was generally pretty suspicious of any and all actions taken on behalf of school districts.

And yet, he would remind me of cases where the special education administration in a district was firmly committed to denying a child a particular program, but their attorney had advised them that it was necessary.  Or of the administrators who really wanted to help kids, but felt hamstrung by their Superintendent.  Or of the many, many teachers who quietly tell parents that they have rights, and even give them the names of good parents’ attorneys, because they see the injustice being done to the child.

Ultimately, we’re all in this together.

If you are in regular disputes with school districts, it is very easy to become jaded and to believe in a “we” versus “they” dichotomy.  I am obviously incredibly cynical, because I am brought in when parents and school districts have reached a critical point in their relationship.  But getting sucked into “they’re always wrong, we’re always right” philosophy just mirrors the worst of how school districts approach parents.

There are few saints and devils in special education.

Just as with life in general, most people who are in the community of educating or advocating for children with disabilities are neither totally good nor totally bad.  There are exceptions, of course.  I have met special educators who have truly responded to a calling, and their passion and commitment to helping children with special education needs are evident every day.   I have also run into more than a few individuals in this field who I would characterize as really, completely, totally, entirely, utterly unscrupulous. And that’s what I call them when I’m trying to be nice.

In general, however, most people fall somewhere in the middle of these polar opposites.

I bring this up because, just this week, I have had the occasion to witness that very powerful example of what happens when educators choose to be honest about what a child needs, rather than protecting their own reputations or the financial interests of the school district.  I spend a lot of time criticizing school district staff, but when they come out in front of their bosses and have the courage to say “we agree with the parents here,” that take a special brand of courage.

Thank you to special educators out there who are willing to put their jobs “on the line” by being honest about what a child needs.

Yes, dad, there is good on both sides of this fence.