Neal Takiff and his firm, Whitted Takiff & Hansen, specialize in education or school law. His firm is perhaps the only law firm in Illinois that represents both sides of school law, representing both parents and school districts (though not in the same case). Takiff’s position is that the common interest for both sides is the student, and that in most cases, both families and school districts are trying to solve a problem and do the right thing for the student.
Takiff has long had an interest in education and helping people. He worked as a teacher for 3 years in Houston’s inner city with “Teach for America “before attending law school. After law school, Takiff worked as a public interest attorney in class action litigation. Later, he was an attorney for the Cook County Public Guardian, representing neglected and abused children and then as a Lake County Public defender. Takiff gained extensive trial experience from that work which was valuable preparation for his work in school law. He has also gained a unique view on education and the law by serving as a school board member. Takiff derives great satisfaction from helping families and being a creative problem solver.
Federal Law provides that school districts are responsible for educating students, and in the case of special education, the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Act), it is required that students with disabilities be provided with education from ages 3 to 22. It may be determined that a student with a disability is entitled to an IEP (Individualized Educational Plan). The key to the IEP is that it is individualized to the student such as a specialized curriculum, extra time to take a test, therapeutic services, mainstreaming or an out of district transfer.
What can a family do if they feel that their student is having trouble in school and is not getting the help he or she needs? A school is obligated by federal law to identify students that may have a disability (IDEA). If a problem is identified, a school may conduct a RTI (Response to Intervention), whereby the student is given short-term assistance to correct the problem. However, this is not meant to be long-term assistance and is not a substitute for an IEP. If it has not already been done, a family can request in writing that a case study evaluation be done of the student. The school must respond to that request in 14 days. Usually, a school will do such an evaluation when requested by the family. A parent can always order their own private evaluation, though that may not be necessary.
What happens if a family is in conflict with the school over an IEP? A lawyer may be able to help the family. There are many stages of the process where a family may benefit from the assistance of a lawyer; whether it is the determination of a student’s eligibility for an IEP or a change in an existing IEP such as a modification in placement or services. Sometimes it is easier to work with a school or persuade them to change their mind if a lawyer is involved before a decision is made about the IEP. Takiff noted that most of his clients felt that having an attorney involved in the process led to a more positive interaction between the school, student and family.
Regardless of the stage of the IEP process when a family engages an attorney, Takiff starts with a file work-up. He will ask the family to collect all paperwork regarding the IEP including emails, correspondence, evaluations and forms. He will also send records requests to the school and any providers, if applicable. This request for records is also an invitation to start a discussion with the school regarding the student. All of the information gathered will be used to form a chronology from the student’s birth to the present date. The chronology will help the attorney and family identify all issues, possible claims against a school and a plan of action.
Based on the chronology and the facts of the individual case, Takiff may recommend that the family attend the IEP meeting without a lawyer, if the case is clear, or a lawyer may attend the IEP meeting. If an unfavorable decision has been made in an IEP case, a lawyer could request a second IEP meeting if there is additional information that was not presented at the initial meeting. The next step in the process would be to progress to the legal system by filing a Due Process Complaint.
A Due Process Complaint is filing a lawsuit against the school district. The Due Process Complaint hearing is held in an informal setting such as in a schoolroom or school office and is presided over by an administrative law judge. Takiff noted that the process has become more formal and in cases where a family does not have a lawyer representing them, the school prevails in the majority of IEP cases, while families that have legal representation for an IEP case, win about half the time. Once the Due Process Complaint has been filed, there is a “cool-off” period of 30 days. Takiff uses this time period to try and steer the case to negotiations and mediation. Families who want to appeal an unfavorable decision from a Due Process Complaint may file their complaint in the federal court of the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago (for northeastern Illinois).
Once an IEP is in place, there is usually an IEP meeting between the school and family once a year. However, the family may need to meet more often if modifications are needed mid-year. Families should not wait until the end of the year to meet, if that is the case.
Bullying is another issue that affects education. The rise of social media and its lack of face to face interaction has led to an increase in bullying. In the last 5 years, legislation has been passed that is tougher on bullying. As a result, courts and schools have treated the bullying issue more seriously. IEPs can be affected by bullying. Students with IEPs can either be victims or perpetrators of bullying. Having an IEP can give a student more support if he or she is a victim of bullying. A perpetrator of bullying with an IEP will have more protections with regard to matters of discipline.
Families who become involved with a school law issue can benefit from consulting an attorney who specializes in school law; whether to clarify an issue or to have a lawyer represent a student and family in court. Takiff’s web site, www.wthlawfirm.com, contains many school law resources that can be helpful to families with a school law issue.