Student Rights Advocates (SRA) works to protect student rights and ensure excellence in public education, particularly for those children who have special needs. Co-founder Debbie Papaj talks about her work and who might benefit from having an advocate on their side.
SN: Debbie, can you explain a bit about the work that you do? Who comes to you for help?
Debbie Papaj: Basically, we help parents request the appropriate services for their child. The most common calls that we receive are District reduced the amount of instruction my child receives in Language and Speech, Occupational therapy, Adaptive PE, BII/BID or ABA services, or District has unilaterally decided to place my child in a Special Day Class (SDC). More often the District’s decision to divest the student of this services is unfounded and unintelligent. Although within my 20 years of advocacy experience, I have crossed paths with some excellent educators and administrator that I wish I can clone! Everyone needs an education. Even if a parent doesn’t need an advocate to come with her to an IEP meeting, it’s possible [for them] sometimes just to talk to someone and say, “Am I on the right track? Am I really nuts? The school is saying this, but I really think there’s a problem.” Sometimes they just need some reassurance because the parent really knows the kid.
SN: So you basically help anyone who is a student?
Debbie Papaj: Yes, though it’s easier to help kids who are still in elementary or secondary school.
SN: Are Student Rights Advocates also attorneys?
Debbie Papaj: Both of us [founders] have been to law school. I passed the bar a while ago and am getting around to being sworn in. Part of my perspective is that I’m going to be doing the same thing that I’m doing now, and the only thing being sworn in is going to give me is the ability to pay my bar dues. So I’m not in a big hurry to do it.
SN: Would SRA get involved in instances of bullying at schools?
Debbie Papaj: Too many parents don’t realize that they can really go after help for situations like the bullying. It is unfortunate the number of calls we get where the kids are being bullied. One little girl at a school district was teased so badly. They even called the cops because there were a group of about 30 kids surrounding this little girl and throwing slushies at her. When I think of situations like this, it’s horrendous to me. How could our kids act like that?
SN: What would SRA do in a situation like that?
Debbie Papaj: I really want to see what the kid wants. In this case, she was very happy when we helped get her transferred and she had a new start. If the child does not want to leave because oftentimes they have some kind of support system or friends despite the kids who pick on them, then we would actually approach it from the standpoint that it’s the school’s responsibility to make sure these kids have a safe learning environment. If they are in special ed, we can push [the issue] on the basis that this excessive bullying is actually denying kids access to their education. There are different avenues that we take depending on whether it’s a special education student or a general education student who is just being picked on horrendously.
SN: What do you do when you go to IEP meetings with parents?
Debbie Papaj: A lot of times parents just need somebody to hold their hand and assure them that the schools are not always out to get them. I think there are some incredible teachers and administrators out there. When parents are concerned about their kids and just don’t understand the whole system, they get a little bit apprehensive. A lot of times we can solve a lot of the problems at the IEP level without having to file for a due process hearing, go through mediation or even all the way to a hearing. If we can solve the problems at an IEP level, it’s so much better for the kids because it’s quicker. The other thing for parents to realize is that talking about the IEP goals is the most important thing in that meeting. They’re setting the bar for how the child is going to progress that year and also for what the court is going to look at if there is a problem, to see whether or not the IEP was appropriate. If the goals weren’t appropriate, that’s what [the courts] have to measure it on, whether the student was meeting those goals. Many parents don’t catch that the goals they’re agreeing to are basically the most important thing that’s going on in that whole IEP meeting.
SN: How can parents know when they are in the meeting, in the heat of the moment, that the right goals are being set for their child?
Debbie Papaj: It’s hard to explain to the parent how to know that they’re setting the right goals. I would like to sit down with every parent at that point of the IEP meeting and say, “Are you setting a goal that a general ed teacher could cover in one lesson?” Because a lot of times they’ll pull out a standard-based goal and say, “He’s got to meet this standard, but there are like 30 or 40 standards in every subject or separate area. A lot of times a teacher will cover two or three standards per lesson. If the parent just thinks “Oh, it’s based on a standard, so it’s okay,” they’re really limiting how successful their child is going to be. If the goals are set so low, there’s no way [the student] is going to keep up with his peers in the same grade. Unfortunately it’s based on the fact that if the student is meeting that goal, they’re going to say that the IEP was appropriate because the student was making progress. Then it’s almost like you have to dig further to say that the IEP was inappropriate, and it’s harder to show that if the student is meeting those goals. A lot of times when a parent comes to SRA, we will look at the goals. We will actually sit down and compare the goals from this year to maybe two or three years back.
SN: What are some signs parents should look for to know when an advocate might be needed for their child?
Debbie Papaj: Parents will see if they’re struggling with their homework. That’s one of the very first red flags. The second one is to always see if the kid is struggling with his self-esteem. That should be a bigger red flag to look for.
SN: Is SRA a unique organization or are there others like you all over the country?
Debbie Papaj: There are a lot of other organizations that do the same kind of work. The majority I’m familiar with are actually special education attorneys. It breaks my heart to see some of the retainer fees some of these attorneys charge a parent. That’s when I decided to go to law school, even though I had already been an advocate for 15 years. I thought there must be something I don’t know, because what could be that fantastic that being an attorney would suddenly put me in a place where I could charge $5,000 to give help? I have seen some settlement agreements people ask me to look over where the most substantive part was the attorney’s fees. We are not a federally funded nonprofit, so we can’t give services for free. But our typical retainer fee is $750. I wish the day would come where we have enough funding to say to everyone that we can [do it for free]. We will. We have never turned anyone away because they couldn’t pay. We will always work on the funding or payment plans. I remember being that mom looking for the help. I know how hard that is, and I don’t think that money should be a barrier to getting that help.
For more information or to contact Student Rights Advocates, visit their website or call 626-395-0146.