Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : September 2005

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Pro Bono Profile:
Helping Special Students Flourish
By Lisa Muscara

It is time once again for filling backpacks with books, new pens, pencils and other supplies in anticipation of a new school year. This fall, however, not all children will be welcomed back to school. Students (including kindergarteners) are being suspended from our public schools at alarming rates. Many of these suspensions result from unidentified special needs, and, consequently, necessary educational services that are not provided to students. This scenario sometimes results in students acting out, and this behavior often leads to inappropriate suspensions. The Maryland Disability Law Center (MDLC) believes that all children and youth with disabilities should receive a free and appropriate public education in compliance with state and federal special education laws. They assert that all families of children and youth with disabilities should have access to knowledge and resources to exercise their rights under these laws. Implementation of these priorities is guided by MDLC’s focus on family empowerment, systemic change through individual case handling, class representation and legal and policy activities.

Providing direct representation for indigent families through their pro bono referral program is one of the many ways MDLC intervenes and advocates for students with special needs. Volunteer attorneys are trained and supported by MDLC staff to serve as advocates in special education cases.

“One of the things that I learned very quickly [dealing with special education] was [that] parents for the most part do not realize what’s available to the children, what the law requires and what they’re entitled to,” notes Sandra B. Minton, one of MDLC’s exceptional volunteers. Consequently, much of Minton’s task as a pro bono attorney involves educating families about their rights and the resources available to them.

Working with special education students and their families is a natural fit for Minton. Before law school, she received a Masters in community counseling and social work, and she worked with teens for a number of years. With her law degree in hand, Minton completed an internship in the Juvenile Division of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and “loved it”. However, rather than build a practice from exclusively juvenile work, Minton decided to incorporate pro bono cases that used her “skills in an area that I loved, [though] couldn’t necessarily support myself”.

Minton is now a partner with the Towson firm of Nead, Karey & Minton, LLP. In her current practice, she strikes a careful balance, making sure to judiciously accept pro bono cases that will fit comfortably within her caseload. Minton has handled as many as four special education pro bono cases in a year, and she is currently working on three active cases.

Lauren Kallins, Staff Attorney and Pro Bono Coordinator for MDLC, describes the impact of Minton’s decision to provide pro bono service for special needs students and their families. “Through her advocacy efforts, Sandy has been able to dramatically improve educational services for students with disabilities and has done so with genuine compassion for the children and respect for their families,” Kallins notes. “We (MDLC staff) are continually impressed by her professional and thoughtful approach to her cases.”

Working to increase services available to special-needs students, Minton has not only provided direct services as a volunteer but has also encouraged her colleagues to volunteer, and she has generously served as a mentor in special education cases. Kallins praises Minton’s involvement and commitment to providing access to services. “In addition to her advocacy on behalf of students, Sandy has served as a mentor for other attorneys interested in handling special education pro bono cases,” Kallins explains. “She has effectively encouraged her own associates to volunteer with MDLC and can be counted on to willingly share her experiences, resources and contacts with other attorneys participating on MDLC’s panels.”

MDLC’s mission is to ensure that people with disabilities are accorded the full rights and entitlements afforded to them by state and federal law. Those rights include the right to self-determination; the right to be free from harm; the right to be provided with due process; the right to develop physically, emotionally and intellectually; and the right to be included in community life with opportunities and choices. These goals are met through the efforts of committed staff and volunteers like Sandra B. Minton, who devotes her unique skills to ensuring that special-needs students find appropriate educational placements in which they will have the best opportunity to flourish.

If you would like to advocate for students with special needs, call the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland at (410) 837-9379 or (800) 396-1274 to register for our Special Education training (co-sponsored by MDLC), or call MDLC’s Pro Bono Coordinator, Lauren Kallins, directly at (410) 727-6352, ext. 238.

Lisa Muscara is Director of Volunteer Services for the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: September 2005

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