More than 250 champions of children and individuals with special education needs came to the Napa Valley Performing Arts Center in the Lincoln Theater in Yountville Friday for a Special Education Law and Advocacy Conference by the Supreme Court attorney Pete Wright.

With law books in hand and a winning sense of humor, Wright shepherded attendees along an insightful journey through the history, impact and future of the educational rights of children with disabilities.

Wright has been involved with special education since his childhood when, according to Wright, in 1954 he was diagnosed with strephosymbolia – a form of “word blindness” today known as dyslexia – and “severe hyperkinesis” – the precursor term for Attention Deficit Hyper Activity (ADHD). These learning abnormalities at that time would have permitted the D.C. school system, Wright said, to legally classify him as “uneducable,” removing all school district responsibility from providing him with access to an education.

Wright’s parents nonetheless persevered in seeking special schools and training to ultimately enable him to achieve a law degree from the University of Virginia.

This was the period before federal laws established the rights of children with special education needs, a federal statute that today is known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA—2004). That statute identifies today’s educational rights of children with disabilities, and the legal responsibilities of school districts, states, and federal institutions to provide a “free and appropriate education” under the “least restrictive environment.”

In 1993 Wright successfully argued a landmark case entitled “Florence County School District Four vs. Carter” before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court, in a unanimous decision, found in favor of Wright’s client. The case confirmed the right of parents to sue a school district for the reimbursement of the cost of educating their child with disabilities as defined by the parents (not the school).

Wright has since written a series of books about the rights spelled out in IDEA 2004 and has created a website called Wrightslaw.org that has propelled him into the role of one of the most respected legal advocates for the education of children with disabilities.

Step by step during the conference he created a conceptual and practical framework by which the details of the IDEA statute and the rights of families were brought into cohesive and actionable focus.

For instance, one parent during the session asked, “What if the school doesn’t follow through with their promises?” Wright’s answer was succinct and to the point: “Did you get those promises in writing? No? Then those promises – legally – never were made!”

In the practiced mode of a “friendly country lawyer” he also schooled the audience of parents in how to win over a hostile school district during the crucial Individual Educational Plan (IEP) meetings.

“Always bring at least two trays of food to the IEP team meetings,” he said with a smile. “And if they tell you something that you know isn’t legal, pretend to be confused and then gently lead them to law regs. Remember that in an IEP meeting, you are in control of the outcome. But if you fall into a hostile role, you can’t achieve your goal as a parent, which is to build the best team to achieve the best educational outcome for your child.”

But parents weren’t the only members of the audience. According to Joanne Gouaux, who organized the conference, of the 264 ticket sold, 80 percent of attendees were from outside of Napa Valley. Those included school district officials, psychologists, special education teachers, and attorneys from as far away as Idaho, Arizona, Los Angeles, Oregon, Nevada and even the Philippines.

Wright conducts numerous conferences throughout the U.S. about special education for parents, educational professionals and advocates throughout the year, and also authors free and regular newsletters about the topic. For more information about future Wrightslaw conferences, to learn more about the IDEA 2004 federal statute or to ask questions of Wright and his staff, visit wrightslaw.com.

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Reporter

Tom Stockwell is currently a staff writer for the St. Helena Star. He is an author of fiction and non-fiction books and has been a working journalist for a variety of technical publications as well as a consultant for numerous wineries in the Napa Valley.