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Securing access to education for special needs children

January 1, 2016

In 2005, Thompson Coburn made a long-term commitment to providing legal services to the poor by founding the William G. Guerri Chair at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. Named for longtime managing partner Bill Guerri, who passed away in 2015, the firm’s annual $50,000 donation allows for an LSEM attorney to work exclusively on educational access for disadvantaged children.

The Guerri Chair, staffed first by attorney Amanda Schneider and now by Luz Henriquez, has over the last decade provided legal representation to more than 300 children with special needs.

“Thompson Coburn’s founding of the Guerri Chair has been a game-changer and a life-changer for hundreds of children throughout the St. Louis region,” said Dan Glazier, the Executive Director of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. “The firm’s donation has ensured these children don’t fall through the cracks, and instead receive the critical educational services so important to their lives.”

Below are just a few examples of the outstanding work led by Amanda and Luz on behalf of St. Louis children.

  • Access to education for long-term suspended and expelled students A settlement between LSEM and the Hazelwood School District secured the right for a 13-year-old student to attend classes at an alternative learning center for the first time since being expelled months earlier. The school district also agreed to provide educational services on a case-by-case basis to other students who are expelled. The settlement — one of the first of its kind in Missouri — is an important development in seeking to ensure students are not permanently barred from education because of a single transgression.

  • Appropriate special education services for children with disabilities In November 2015, LSEM filed an administrative due process complaint against a school district because of its failure to properly identify a 15-year-old as a student with a disability in need of special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. LSEM secured a settlement that gave the student the opportunity to re-coup several high school credits he missed, as well as additional educational instruction and support, and transportation to classes. The student received all of these services and reported to LSEM that school was going well.

  • Addressing issues of truancy LSEM and the Guerri Chair have represented several clients at various district discipline conferences and long-term suspension hearings, seeking to protect the rights of children who are facing removal from the general education setting.  In one recent case, LSEM represented a high school student who was facing such a removal for excessive truancy.  The hearing officer agreed with LSEM’s argument that a long-term suspension was counter-intuitive and would not resolve the underlying issues contributing to the child’s truancy.  The officer allowed the child to immediately return to school and requested that the child’s special education team meet to address the child’s attendance issues. 

The Guerri Chair has also played a lead role in educating the public about the school-to-prison pipeline and its disproportionate effects on students of color.  Amanda Schneider published an Op-Ed piece in November 2014, entitled “‘School-to-Prison pipeline’ has disparate impact in North County” and Luz María Henríquez published an Op-Ed piece in April 2016, entitled “What we do – and don’t – know about alternative education.”

Amanda served as a “content expert” and provided technical assistance on School-to-Prison Pipeline issues for the Ferguson Commission and its education working group.