As Florida students returned to in-person education following more than a year of school closures and distance learning, Southern Legal Counsel partnered with pro bono attorneys and other advocacy organizations to support students with disabilities who were impacted by COVID-19 school disruptions.

SLC joined forces with Three Rivers Legal Services and the Center for Children’s Rights to host a special education clinic on April 24. Families met with an attorney over Zoom to get legal advice on the rights of their children to educational services. Technical assistance and mentoring were provided by special education experts Stephanie Langer of Disability Independence Group and Katie Kelly of Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida.

Pro bono support came from McDermott Will & Emery attorneys Brandon White, Megan Cheney and Robert Kline. The firm sponsors Equal Justice Works Fellow Abigail Adkins, whose Safe Schools project advocates for the provision of comprehensive school- and community-based mental health services for at-risk students.

White assisted the parent of a preschool child with developmental and language delays that led to challenging behaviors in the classroom. The school responded by asking his family to only bring him to class three days a week. White crafted a complaint to the Florida Department of Education, which resulted in the local school district quickly rectifying the issues and agreeing to provide summer services to compensate for the class-time missed.

Cheney, in her interview with a family at the clinic, identified a systemic issue with the provision of online curriculums where if a student fails to log in multiple times they can be locked out of the system and lose any progress they had made. As SLC continues to work on the individual needs of this student, we are also exploring how to address the broader issues of access to educational services during the pandemic.

Kline, a former educator himself, took on direct representation of the student he was matched with at the clinic, an eighth-grader with autism spectrum disorder. He helped the parent advocate for the school district to hold an interim IEP meeting with both the middle- and high-school special-education teams to develop a transition plan addressing the student’s behavioral needs.

Southern Legal Counsel thanks McDermott for its continued support of the rights of children in Florida.