Texas law clinic aids those with special needs

The Education for Handicapped Children Act, a federal law, requires that handicapped students shall have access to ''free appropriate public education.'' But that's easier said than done.

At the University of Texas Law School in Austin, advanced law students are helping enforce this law through a new Education Law Clinic, available to indigent parents and children. Less than a year old, the clinic has already begun to make an educational difference to a dozen central Texas children with learning or physical handicaps.

Small schools, especially, may not have the facilities, the expertise, or possibly the motivation to provide the special education required by law. Erica Black Grubb, a lecturer at the law school who, with Prof. Steven Goode, supervises the clinic, tells this story of a high school student who had trouble continuing his education.

''Robert -- fictitious name -- and his parents moved from Austin to a smaller central Texas city. Robert had been in special education classes and played basketball in Austin, but when he moved, he was effectively barred from school.

''When Robert and his mother heard about the clinic, Robert had been out of school for a year. He had been labeled 'a troublemaker' and had not been admitted.

''First, the law students tried to work something out for Robert through informal negotiations with school officials, but with no success.

''Then the students attempted to get a restraining order to place Robert in school. They did not prevail in court, but this was one of those cases where the battle was lost, but the war was won. The law students learned an important practical lesson - they must be good social workers as well as good lawyers.''

The school officials were persuaded to provide the psychological assessments required under the law. As soon as the tests were completed, Robert was admitted into school and has been a successful student and is on the basketball team.

''No one likes to be sued,'' says Mr. Goode, ''but school officials usually will work with the student lawyers to find a way to help the child.

''We are all in the business of education. Also, the legal clinic has had no complaints, so far, from the legal profession.'' He suggests the reason for this is that the clinic works only with indigent persons.

During the fall (1981) semester the clinic's dozen cases involved both problems of physical handicap, which hamper mobility and thus require special structural and access help from the schools, and problems of behavior that bring on disciplinary action.

The lawyers who work with the students are both experienced in education law. Mr. Goode is a former staff attorney with the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. Ms. Grubb has been working with the Texas Rural Legal Aid.

According to Goode, the goal of the Education for Handicapped Children Act is to ensure that, through an individually drawn education plan, a handicapped child will have a chance to ''get into the mainstream as much as possible.''

This may mean enrollment in a vocational program, or special attention to prepare the student for college. Under the federal act, individuals are eligible for special education through the age of 21. This can include placement in a residential center.

Goode points out that a school often does not have the personnel to do the necessary ''legwork'' in getting a severely handicapped child placed in a residential center that caters to those with exceptional learning needs.

''But good lawyering involves good social work,'' he says. The law students staffing the clinic are learning how to locate resources needed by the handicapped.

From informal negotiation, through impartial due-process hearing before an attorney appointed by the Texas Education Agency, then -- if necessary -- to a lawsuit brought in federal or state court, law students have the opportunity to practice their lawyering skills under the watchful eyes of Mr. Goode and Ms. Grubb. They interview and examine witnesses, write briefs, present documents, and gather data.

''It's invaluable experience for a law student,'' Ms. Grubb says, ''and also we hope may make a difference in the lives of many Roberts.'

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