By Nicolas Muñoz, USC Gould Irmas Legal Fellow
I have the honor of being a USC Gould School of Law Irmas Fellow at Mental Health Advocacy Services, Inc. (MHAS). The focus of my Irmas Fellowship project is advocacy for the educational success of children, particularly young children, with serious mental health disabilities. I do this both by advocating for their special education rights and assisting the families of these children with housing rights, government benefits and other legal challenges that impede educational progress.
For children living with disabilities, the difference between success and failure at school often depends on receiving appropriate services early in their education. Even knowledgeable parents sometimes find themselves in meetings with school staff who minimize or ignore their concerns. Providing direct advocacy to these parents for their children helps to rebalance the odds in favor of the child.
In my short time at MHAS, I have secured favorable outcomes for parents struggling to obtain appropriate accommodations, assessments, and placements for their children. In one case, a parent suspected that her child had a disability and requested a special education assessment. The district ignored her requests for an entire school year. I accompanied the parent to a school meeting where we successfully negotiated an immediate assessment to address the student’s long ignored suspected disability. In another case, my client had been disenrolled from school for over two months. The district simply left the student without a school to attend, despite his mother’s repeated requests to resolve the issue. My direct advocacy at an individualized education program (IEP) meeting secured the district’s cooperation on non-public school placement and provided the mother with referrals and options for a new school placement. Both instances serve as examples of how direct advocacy can ameliorate an uneven power dynamic and allow parents to finally be heard.
Through my volunteer work during law school, I saw the importance of early intervention and how many parents, particularly immigrant parents, are unaware of their children’s rights to educational services. As part of my Irmas project, I partner with local Head Start programs to provide valuable education rights trainings to parents of young children. I have already conducted 19 trainings that served 250 parents, most of whom are immigrant families. Equipping parents with the knowledge of how to advocate for their children is one of the most satisfying parts of my project. As my time with MHAS continues, I plan to expand the reach of my presentations through continued community outreach.
I look forward in future blogs to sharing more about the growth and development of my Irmas project. My fellowship has been an invaluable opportunity for me to develop strong legal skills that ensure that I can provide some of the most vulnerable students in our community with the support they need to receive the services to which they are legally entitled.
USC Gould Irmas Legal Fellow