American International Group (AIG) Partners With LAS to Ensure Access to Special Educational Services
Learning disabled and held back multiple times at an elementary charter school, Dana’s (name changed) academic skills were far below grade level. Despite her difficulties, she was never evaluated for special education services. In 5th grade, she transferred to a public school, but by that time she was three years older than her classmates. At this time she was evaluated and determined to need special education services, but she was so far behind that the program that was recommended to her offered her no opportunity to succeed.
Through a unique partnership with American International Group (AIG), Dana’s family was represented by The Legal Aid Society’s Education Law Project and attorneys from AIG’s Legal Department. Under the supervision of Susan Horwitz, the Project’s director, AIG attorneys met with Dana and her parents, gathered school documents, investigated violations of special education law, and researched and advocated for remedies. They developed a case and litigated an administrative hearing at the NYC Department of Education, where they prevailed on behalf of the client. The pro bono team from AIG secured 600 hours of specialized tutoring and an order for Dana to be placed at a private special education school where her needs would be met.
Dana’s case is just one of several that have allowed families of special education students access critical services. In fact, in every matter handled by AIG through the project has resulted in the student being awarded additional special education services. When asked about the impact of the partnership on her unit’s capacity to handle more cases, Susan responded, “Every case that AIG takes is one more family that we can represent. We have a very small staff, and extremely limited capacity, so even one pro bono case makes a noticeable difference to our ability to help families.” Many parents that come to Legal Aid seeking assistance with educational issues have been struggling to get appropriate services for their children for years. With this partnership, these parents suddenly have a team of two AIG attorneys, AIG paralegals, and a Legal Aid supervisor to support them and advocate for their needs.
While this partnership has been beneficial for Legal Aid and our clients, we are not the only ones who benefit. The AIG attorneys don’t always have the opportunity to work with individual clients, and this partnership affords them that opportunity.
“The Legal Aid Society is a great partner for our organization’s pro bono efforts,” says Doris Rios-Duffy of AIG. “Assisting students with special education needs and helping them get access to the support they are entitled to receive and need is very gratifying. We hope our work will help these students live fulfilling lives. The administrative hurdles students can face to get services are sometimes daunting. Through perseverance and the great work we do with Susan and the Legal Aid Society, we have had some successes and we hope to have more as we continue our work with the team.” Lastly, it helps the entire family of the student, because when children function better in schools, the entire family functions better at home.
Because of this important partnership, many of our clients, who we otherwise would not be able to assist, have received the services they need.
Education Law Project Volunteer Spotlight:
“Attorney Emeritus” Mary Schuette
Being retired doesn’t mean you have to stop practicing law. Attorneys with a wealth of diverse experience volunteer in various units at The Legal Aid Society after retirement. In addition to allowing Legal Aid to assist more clients, their presence provides our staff with an opportunity to gain valuable professional development skills and reduce some of the burdens of significant caseloads. The Attorney Emeritus Program (or AEP) attorneys are a vital part of the work we do throughout the Society. Mary Schuette, a pro bono volunteer with the Education Law Project in our Harlem Community Law Office is a great example of an attorney who has leveraged skills learned in one area of law to help benefit clients in a completely different forum.
Mary Schuette began her legal career as a labor and employment attorney, and worked her way up to an officer-level position supervising a large group of attorneys and staff in an in-house legal department. Upon her retirement, she began volunteering at various nonprofit organizations, focusing primarily on children and education. At first, her volunteering was primarily ad hoc, but she was looking for something that would entail a long-term commitment. By chance, Mary was a co-presenter with Lou Sartori, Director of the Pro Bono Practice at Legal Aid on a panel held at Columbia Law School focusing on post-retirement options for attorneys. During the course of the discussion, Lou spoke about the Attorney Emeritus Program. Mary thought that Legal Aid might be a good fit for her, and she applied to volunteer.
Mary spends two days per week volunteering in our Education Law Project. Working with Susan Horwitz, Director of the Project, Mary has done research, prepared clients for interviews, edited a brief, assisted with preparation for a hearing, and more. For Mary, the opportunity has allowed her to work with a team on projects which focus on a cause she cares about deeply. For Legal Aid, the addition of Mary’s time and talent let us expand the work we do.
When asked what stands out about this experience, Mary says that “no one client or case stands out; what does stand out are the utter dedication, resolve and passion displayed by every single one of the mothers I’ve had the privilege of working with on behalf of their children.”
Quinn Emanuel Accelerated Response Protects Students Rights
Frequently used as a tool by school administrators to jettison children deemed to be “problem students”, over 44,000 students are suspended from school each year by the New York City Department of Education (DOE). Some of the most vulnerable of these students are those whose families have matters before the New York City Family Court. Harsh discipline policies cause students to fall behind academically and disengage from school. The consequences for court involved children are even greater because the outcome could impact not only their school placement, but their living situation as well.
The Legal Aid Society’s Juvenile Rights Practice Educational Advocacy Project (EAP) provides representation at School Suspension Hearings to ensure these students’ due process rights are protected and to prevent the DOE from imposing unfair and overly-harsh suspensions. These hearings pose significant challenges for child advocates because they are scheduled only days after a child and family are notified of the suspension. As a result, it is critical that the attorney be ready to proceed immediately. While adjournments are considered, each day the matter is delayed is a day that the child is not in school.
In order to provide critical representation for these students, without delaying a return to classes, the EAP has partnered with Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP. A team of Quinn Emanuel attorneys, trained by Legal Aid, are ready to step in on behalf of these students to ensure their educational rights are protected. “Working with Legal Aid allows me to offer legal services to a person in need, on a personal level, and see an immediate change for the better in our client’s circumstances,” said Quinn Emanuel Associate Todd Batson. “Legal Aid was supportive and provided guidance, and I look forward to working with them again.”
Legal Aid Supervising Attorney Melinda Andra believes the impact is twofold. “In addition to the benefit of ensuring a fair hearing, having an advocate at suspension hearings empowers children who often feel helpless against school push out. As a result of Quinn Emanuel’s representation of JRP clients, at risk students are missing less school and are returning to their studies more quickly.”
Quinn Emanuel has been an important and effective partner and their work can have lasting effects on the lives of our clients. Tyler Whitmer, the Partner overseeing the project at the firm put it this way, “Weakening the first link in the school to prison pipeline is just as important as dealing with the last one, and Legal Aid has created a wonderful infrastructure for doing just that.”
The Legal Aid Society Mourns the Loss of Friend and Supporter Stuart Finkelstein
It is with great sadness that The Legal Aid Society says good bye to friend and supporter Stuart Finkelstein, co-leader of the global tax practice at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP who died tragically on July 7th in a biking accident on Nantucket where he was vacationing with his family.
Stu shared his incredible talent as a member of the Advisory Board of The Legal Aid Society’s Low Income Taxpayers Clinic (LITC). Recognized as one of the top tax lawyers in the United States by his peers as well as numerous professional associations and periodicals, Stu’s dedication and commitment during his 30+ years at Skadden was an inspiration to clients and colleagues alike. A tireless supporter of pro bono, Stu was instrumental in getting many of his colleagues—partners, associates, summer associates, counsel—to devote thousands of hours to representing low income residents of New York City resolve tax disputes with both the IRS and the NYS Department of Taxation. Under his leadership, Skadden attorneys eliminated well over one million dollars in liabilities for the clients of the LITC. But Stu didn’t simply lead the projects. He got into the weeds and worked the cases alongside his associates. His passion, enthusiasm and sense of humor endeared him to all of us at Legal Aid who worked with him. The impact of his work was literally life changing for the economically vulnerable members of the community that The Legal Aid Society serves.
Stu is a four time recipient of the Society’s Pro Bono Publico Award, recognizing extraordinary pro bono service, and in 2015 he and his colleagues at Skadden were recognized with the Innovative Pro Bono Programming Award for the firm’s collaboration with Legal Aid on the Offer In Compromise Project.
We extend our deepest sympathies to Stu’s family, friends and colleagues.