Kristina Malzbender ’15, Maryland Disability Law Center

Kristina-MalzbenderI spent my week shadowing Leslie Margolis ’82 at the Maryland Disability Law Center (MDLC), which is a nonprofit legal services organization and the designated disability Protection and Advocacy agency for the State of Maryland.

Day 1
The day began with a meeting of the City Wide Special Education Advocacy Project for Baltimore City Public Schools. This group of educators, parents, administrators and legal professionals advises the school district on special education policy and practices. I was particularly impacted by the honesty and passion of the parents present at the meeting and how important their voices were in advocating for their children with disabilities.

In the afternoon I attended a meeting of the Education Advocacy Coalition for Students with Disabilities (EAC) with the Maryland State Superintendent of Education. The EAC is comprised of approximately 30 organizations and individuals concerned with special education issues in Maryland. This was the first EAC meeting attended by the newly-appointed superintendent and addressed three issues identified by the EAC as priorities in special education for the state of Maryland. The meeting discussed the possibility of a dispute resolution process for discrimination claims in childcare, the disproportionate suspension and discipline rates for students with disabilities and the need for special education instruction as part of teacher preparation for all teachers.

At the end of the day, I assisted the intake staff on taking calls from clients requesting legal advice or assistance.

Day 2
In the morning, I attended the IEP (Individualized Education Program) IMG_2904meeting for a client of Mrs. Margolis. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that all students in the U.S. who receive special education services have an IEP created by the school in conjunction with the student and his or her parent. The IEP outlines the services and frequency of services to be provided to the student and the modifications and accommodations to be made for the student. This specific meeting focused on the student’s transition from eighth grade to high school and the changes necessary to continue the progress made at her middle school in high school. The IEP meeting showed me all the different players and perspectives that go into crafting a special education student’s education – the  student attended the meeting along with her special education teacher, paraprofessional and parents, an MDLC attorney representing the family, a school district IEP representative, a representative from the high school, and the middle school’s IEP chair.

Day 3
I attended a meeting of the Maryland Family Network and Childcare Resource Center regarding a proposed law for the state of Maryland to create a complaint and dispute resolution system for families of children with disabilities regarding complaints of discrimination. A representative from the Developmental Disabilities Council spoke about the proposed bill and answered questions from childcare providers. According to a report from the Education Advocacy Coalition, 72% of families report difficulties obtaining or maintaining childcare for their kids with disabilities. By law, childcare providers are required to provide accommodations and services to all children and cannot deny a child care due to a disability. However, many families still feel that they face discrimination by childcare providers who cannot afford the accommodations required for children with disabilities. According to the same report by the EAC, 73% of child care providers have asked a child to leave a program because of a child’s behavior, which often is related to a disability. The childcare providers present at the meeting were willing to accept children with special needs but were concerned about the additional costs without compensation, training or support. The representative of the Developmental Disabilities Council clarified that the bill specifically targets cases in which the providers deny families admission in the first place rather than cases in which the provider attempts to provide accommodations to special needs students and disputes arise.

In the afternoon, I attended a meeting of the Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Advisory Board which advises the Governor of Maryland’s office regarding issues related to TBI. The primary focus of the meeting was to discuss proposed legislation to create a Brain Injury Trust Fund to provide services and supports to individuals who have had a TBI but are ineligible for state programs due to age, diagnosis or treatments. A similar bill was proposed last year but was turned down because no funds were available. This year, the proposed bill would attach a small fee to motor vehicle registrations as a funding source.

Day 4
I drove out to a meeting of an Alternative Assessments Workgroup for the Maryland State Department of Education. The workgroup was created to evaluate the issue of how to properly assess academic achievement and instruction for students with a broad range of disabilities. The workgroup is currently concerned primarily with the issue of assessing students with the most significant cognitive disabilities and how to adapt all assessments to the needs of such students while producing a meaningful assessment of educational gains. The workgroup was made up of special educators, paraprofessionals, school principals, district and state DOE representatives and legal professionals such as MDLC.

IMG_2909This Princeternship afforded me the opportunity to explore the behind-the-scenes dynamics of special education and disability services. I learned a lot about the specific environment of Maryland’s education system and the specific dynamics of the state’s distribution of services. In addition, I was fascinated by MDLC’s ability to take on cases from individual clients in order to make broad, systemic change regarding recurring issues of discrimination, treatment and services for individuals with disabilities. I would like to thank the Princeternship Program, Leslie Margolis and all of the staff at MDLC for this opportunity!