Learning to Read and Other Lessons by Darrel Tillar Mason, Esq.

Darrel Tillar Mason, Esq.Most of us in the legal profession take for granted our ability to read, comprehend, and then recall what we have read. We cannot imagine being successful in our personal lives, let alone our professional lives, without these skills. Many of us probably do not remember a time when we did not have this ability. For me-- being neither musical, artistic, nor athletic-- reading was the greatest joy of my youth. Thus, when I was approached by my first special education client, a Mom who was distraught because her middle-school aged son with average intelligence could not read and was consequently having myriad problems in and out of the classroom; I was hooked.

At that point in my career, about fifteen years ago, and about fifteen years after I first started practicing law, I had a comfortable general practice, with a focus on employment law. I had only recently been introduced to special education issues, and that introduction came by way of my appointment to the State Board of Education. During my tenure on the Board, the Board was tasked with revising Virginia's special education regulations to conform to recent changes in the federal regulations. Lobbyists from various school boards urged the Board to keep the standard for providing special education services to the barest minimum. Concerned parents pleaded with the Board to give their children with disabilities access to an appropriate school program. I became intrigued with this civil rights struggle and determined to learn what the barriers were to providing the federally mandated "free and appropriate education" to all children.

I met periodically with parents of children with special needs who impressed me with their untiring efforts to ensure that their children were not left behind because of their disabilities. I also met with leaders of various teacher groups, and individual teachers, who had a surprising divergence of opinions. Some of these educators felt that the parents were too demanding — others felt that the school’s administration was not supportive of the teachers' and/or parents' reasonable requests for services and supports.

It was distressing to learn that the special education dispute resolution procedure incorporated into the law, a procedure intended to be user friendly for both parents and school systems, had morphed into a highly biased, complicated, expensive, school board lawyer driven legal nightmare. Most often parents either cannot find an attorney with the necessary expertise, or cannot afford one. They find themselves representing their children in these administrative and court proceedings, which is allowed under federal and state law. Not surprisingly, parents almost always lose in spite of having compelling cases. Many parents drop their requests for an administrative hearing when confronted with a requirement to timely respond to motions to dismiss, requests for stipulations, pre-hearing briefs, challenges to expert testimony or when they have to cross-examine a school witness. They find the system biased and overwhelming. In fact, over ninety percent of requests for hearings made each year by parents are either dismissed before a decision is rendered or decided in favor of the school system.

To help ameliorate this injustice, in 2000 I founded a nonprofit special education legal advocacy organization with a mission of training interested lawyers and parent advocates in understanding and negotiating the various dispute resolution procedures available. With a seed grant from the Virginia Law Foundation, our organization was able to produce an award-winning DVD presenting a mock special education case. This DVD is used in trainings offered to parent advocates, school administrators involved in special education disputes, and both parent and school attorneys. I play the part of the hearing officer in this DVD, and was joined by experienced counsel playing the parts of the parent and school attorneys, and various experts. We had professional actors play the parts of the parents because these cases are so emotional. It was a huge undertaking, but the final product was received enthusiastically and I am proud of that effort.

I continue to represent parents across the Commonwealth in their disputes with local school systems. In many of my dealings with parent clients, it seems I rely on my master's degree in guidance and counseling almost as much as my law degree. It is tough to help parents who naturally want what is best for their child understand that the law does not require the school to provide that level of services. Nevertheless, when school systems fail to provide even the minimal level of appropriate services, it is immensely satisfying to successfully litigate such cases. The Christmas after my first case involving the middle-school aged boy who could not read, I received a holiday greeting card from the Mom with a picture of her son. Included was a note reporting that since we had convinced the school to teach the young man in a manner adapted to his previously ignored learning disability, he had begun to read and was catching up quickly. I couldn’t have asked for a better present. Each year I have been blessed to receive similar reports from other parents and students.

In the last fifteen years, it is estimated that fewer than two dozen Virginia lawyers have litigated a special education case to conclusion on behalf of parents and prevailed. I'm proud to be among that elite group and feel privileged to have made a substantive difference in the lives of the children I have represented. In return, the parents of these children have taught me important lessons about caring, self-sacrifice, and faith.

© 2010 Darrel Tillar Mason, Esq.

Darrel Tillar Mason is founder of the Virginia Coalition for Students with Disabilities Legal Advocacy Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the educational rights of children with disabilities. She is a member at large of the Council of the Virginia State Bar and is active with the Virginia Women Attorneys Association. Mason served as a hearing officer through the Virginia Supreme Court for 6 years, as Vice President of the State Board of Education, as a member of the Standing Committee on Legal Ethics of the Virginia State Bar, and as chair of the Special Committee on Lawyer Malpractice Insurance of the Virginia State Bar. Ms. Mason presents seminars on legal topics and has written numerous articles on legal, ethical, and social issues.

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Updated: May 25, 2010