When Camille Calman, now an associate in Davis Wright Tremaine’s New York office, first met Ziograin Correa, Jr. in 2010, he was 12 years old and had attended four different public schools in six years. Classified as autistic, Zio simply could not function in classes with as many as two dozen students. He did not have friends and was a target of bullies. He also wasn’t progressing in his studies, and his school was setting goals well below his capabilities.
Zio’s father turned to an organization called Advocates for Children of New York (AFC), which, among other things, works to enforce the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. First passed by Congress in 1975, the law requires public school districts to provide a free education that is appropriate to the needs of children with disabilities. If the district does not have a program appropriate to the child, parents can place the child in a private school and seek reimbursement.
Calman also got in touch with AFC around this same time. She was an associate with Debevoise & Plimpton and was looking for a pro bono opportunity that involved kids and education. AFC turned up in her Google search. She began training with the organization, and the second case they sent her was Zio.
“Zio was in a private school,” she says, “but most of his classmates were emotionally disturbed. Special ed classes weren’t working for him. He has difficulty with social skills and his classmates had trouble controlling their emotions. It was a very combustible mix. He got beat up on his first day. It was a terrible place for him.”
In addition, Zio was regressing in his studies. “It was a school where they concentrated on basic living skills, not academic skills,” says Calman.
Zio’s father wanted another change, and placed him in the highly regarded Aaron School in midtown Manhattan. “It’s designed for kids on the autism spectrum,” says Calman. “There are lots of accommodations to overcome differences in attention processing. They have small classes and use a lot of techniques that have been shown to work.”
But the New York City Department of Education resisted the request for reimbursement. The DOE sought what’s called “an impartial hearing,” a kind of mini-trial in which information is submitted, and witnesses testify, before an arbiter appointed by the DOE. Thanks to Calman’s work with Zio and his family, she prevailed at the hearing.
With the specialized support provided by the school, Zio has begun to thrive. “He discovered a passion for learning after years of frustrating school experiences,” says his father. Zio has also learned how to make and keep friends.
However, Calman’s work with Zio continues. The hearing only provided approval for one year’s tuition. Calman, having since joined Davis Wright, had to create another extensive appeal to the DOE for reimbursement for each of the last two school years. DOE did not seek a hearing in those cases.
In April, Zio was featured at AFC’s Spring Benefit and honored with the organization’s “Education Champion” award, “in recognition of all his hard work and perseverance to receive an appropriate education.”
“What’s sad is that parents who are good at navigating the system are more able to get the benefits of the Act than parents who don’t have the education,” says Calman. “Advocates for Children helps the people who don’t normally have access to expensive lawyers like us.”