Try to See The Forest, Not the Trees

Published on July 15, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano


I had a discussion today with a former client whose child is now an adult.  As we were catching up, we started talking about how much more relaxed she seemed, having successfully navigated the special education system several times over the many years, and now obtaining appropriate adult services for her son.  We recalled how much more stressed she had been when I had first met her family, when the future of their legal dispute with their school district was unknown.

These particular parents are powerful reminders to me that perseverance and strength of purpose are indispensable qualities in parents of children with disabilities.

While there were many times when both of the parents were frustrated, angry, upset, and confused by the system, they never gave up.  We put our heads together as a team, and I always knew that, if I issued an ultimatum to the school district’s attorney on their case, they would have the courage to back it up.  The kind of fortitude that these particular parents had is something I have grown to truly admire in many of my clients.

For every parent like these, I know there are far more who don’t have the resources, emotional or financial, to “take on” their districts.

Parents who are fortunate to be able to fight hard and long to see justice prevail for their children with special needs are the bedrock of our adversarial system under the IDEA.  Such parents come in many forms, from every race, religion, population of disability, and economic background.  If it weren’t for those few willing to enforce their civil rights, none of us would have them.

However, parents who are in legal disputes with their school districts easily become over-focused on every little detail in dispute, and lose sight of the ultimate goal.

Whether at the IEP or Mediation level, or more formally through a Due Process Hearing or federal litigation, if a family has decided to “lawyer up” by hiring me, an initial determination has already been made that the disagreements with the school are serious enough to justify the risks of creating an adversarial relationship.  In fact, I don’t take cases in my special education practice in Connecticut otherwise.  I often talk to families about picking their battles when it comes to special education litigation.

Once litigation has begun, however, it is easy for BOTH sides to get into “war mode.”

Don’t get me wrong; when I have exhausted all avenues of amicable resolution on behalf of my clients, and our only option is to litigate, I become fairly focused on victory myself.  In fact, I have been known to be disappointed that one school district always caves right before a Hearing, because I am just dying to cross-examine the special education director, who is simultaneously clueless and arrogant (probably why their attorney is always recommending settlement.)

But just as my zealous advocacy must always be tempered with reason, parents should remember that successful outcomes often appear in the form of a settlement agreement that admits no wrong-doing on the school district’s part.

In 1, 5, or 10 years from now, most parents will not care about, or maybe even remember, whether the school’s speech pathologist they didn’t like did the testing at the end of third grade or not, but they WILL be able to tell you whether or not elementary school was a success.   And yet, I have attended dozens of Mediation sessions at which those kinds of things threatened an otherwise excellent offer by the school district.  It is then my job to ask the parents to look at the “big picture” and to be willing to concede the small things if it means they get the more important ones.

Don’t let pride be the obstacle to a reasonable resolution of your claims.

When deciding whether or not to resolve your child’s special education case, ask yourself honestly whether one of the issues in dispute will matter to you, or your child, in five years.  If the answer is “yes,” then stick to your guns.  If not, then you are probably focusing on a small tree in a very large forest.

One Response to Try to See The Forest, Not the Trees

  1. Craig
    July 15th, 2009 | 10:50 pm

    Another great post Jennifer! I have been fortunate in that I haven’t had to go mediation or higher in the quest for a decent 504 Plan for my daughter. Over the years, I have learned that it is best to pick my battles and find common ground whenever possible. The process has gone from being a contentious one to a much more cooperative effort. In fact, once I learned to see the forest and perhaps, play the game a bit better, I actually got a lot more from the school for my daughter than I imagined. What’s even more important, school staff actually went the extra mile for my daughter as a result.

    I realize that not everyone is as fortunate as I have been and there can be tremendous difficulty in getting proper services for specialed kids. But, I strongly agree with you that it’s important to see the big picture whenever possible.

    Thanks for sharing this great post!