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Long time legal aid attorney Christine Trottier has retired from the practice of law, but leaves a vibrant legacy at Disability Rights North Carolina—the Special Education Juvenile Justice Project (SEJJP). Lisa Rabon, her longtime colleague in the project, said, “Working with Chris taught me everything about special education law. She was my mentor, she guided me, and really not only helped me to learn the laws of special education, but also how to be a better advocate for my clients than I had ever been before.”

The SEJJP was the brainchild of attorneys Deborah Greenblatt and Christine Trottier. The two attorneys helped launch Carolina Legal Assistance (CLA), the predecessor of Disability Rights NC. CLA was active in litigation on behalf of disadvantaged and vulnerable people with disabilities, including prison inmates, nursing home residents, troubled adolescents, and people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Some of CLA’s early accomplishments include:

• CLA co-counseled with Pamlico Legal Services to force the state to improve the quality of care of nursing home residents. A three-year lawsuit ended in a settlement in which the state agreed to regulate nursing homes by establishing guidelines and enforcing them through inspections, investigations, and penalties for violations.

• A patient at a psychiatric hospital refused treatment for cancer and was declared incompetent through the “lunacy statute,” without notice or hearing. CLA filed suit on behalf of the patient and fought for the repeal of the lunacy statute before a commission of the General Assembly. The statute was eventually repealed.

Every state has a designated protection and advocacy system, mandated and funded by the federal government to enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act and other disability rights laws. CLA’s track record of effectively fighting for the rights of people with disabilities made the agency a natural fit to be designated as North Carolina’s protection and advocacy system in 2007. CLA was renamed Disability Rights North Carolina that year.

As a legally-based advocacy organization, Disability Rights NC has a staff knowledgeable in the laws protecting people with disabilities and can take legal action to effect change impacting large populations. Disability Rights NC employs a blend of investigatory action, individual representation, educational outreach, and systems advocacy to ensure that the 1.9 million children and adults with disabilities living in North Carolina have a full opportunity to live safely and with dignity in the community of their choice. Its attorneys and advocates provide services at no charge.

As an integral part of that work, the SEJJP is housed on the Education Team, which was led by Chris Trottier prior to her retirement. Understanding that illiteracy and disability-related behaviors are the biggest predictors for school suspensions, Chris advocated for the rights of suspended students to receive the special education services to which they are entitled by law.

Jane Wettach, director of the Children’s Law Clinic at Duke Law School, worked with Chris on statewide special education reform. Jane applauded Chris for being “a great inspirer.” She recalled, “Chris was always willing to challenge the status quo to say ‘that’s not right,’ and to be a leader by being the one to say ‘what can we do about that, can we change the law, can we change the policy, let’s try to fix the system.’ She always wanted to use our tools as lawyers to make things better.”

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that state and local education agencies provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for all children with disabilities. The IDEA does not allow school systems to exclude students who are too severely disabled. It does not allow them to reduce services to children who are difficult to serve. Yet students with disabilities are frequently excluded from school based on behaviors related to their disabilities.

A study by The Civil Rights Project found that students with disabilities are suspended twice as often as students without disabilities.1 And the consequences of letting these children slip through the cracks can be devastating, contributing to what is commonly called the “school to prison pipeline.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center reported in 2007 that “up to 85% of children in juvenile detention facilities have disabilities that make them eligible for special education services, yet only 37% had been receiving any kind of services in their school.”2

Obviously, students who leave school and end up in the juvenile justice system have low prospects for gainful employment and independent living. It is an outcome that is tragic and altogether too common.

The education team at Disability Rights North Carolina wants to know two things when they take a case. Can they help a child who has been denied a free and appropriate public education? And can they bring change to a system that has failed to provide that free and appropriate public education for a number of children? So when the attorneys at Disability Rights NC heard from the mother of “Aaron,” they knew they had to help him.

Aaron had been frequently suspended for a few days at a time for behavioral problems, once for ten days. He was given only packets of worksheets to keep him current on his schoolwork while at home, and received no special education services during that time. When Disability Rights NC took the case, his time on suspension added up to 50 days of the 185-day school year. Aaron was 8 years old.

This is the kind of case that fits the criteria of the Special Education Juvenile Justice Project (SEJJP), administered by Disability Rights NC and funded by IOLTA. The SEJJP addresses this problem and has a track record of keeping kids with disabilities in school where they can receive the educational services described in their IEPs. Many times, compensatory services are in order; if a child has missed instructional time, he is entitled by law to have those hours made up.

When a complaint was filed with the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), DPI separated the complaint into individual and systemic complaints and addressed the individual concerns first so Aaron’s situation could be resolved quickly.

DPI required the school to provide Aaron with 175 hours of compensatory education, to include 50 hours of reading instruction, 50 hours of math instruction, 50 hours of social skills training, and 25 hours of counseling as a related service. DPI required training for the staff and administrators of Aaron’s school to include positive behavioral intervention strategies. The staff, administrators, and district officials would also receive training on disciplinary procedures, manifestation determinations, and the appropriate programming for students on suspension.

Aaron’s situation has improved greatly. He was placed in a classroom with one other student, a highly skilled special education teacher, and an assistant teacher with the goal of a gradual transition back to the regular classroom. His behavior problems have reduced significantly, and he has made academic improvements as well.

Under the second systemic complaint, DPI went on to look at whether the district provided a free and appropriate public education to students with disabilities who were suspended longer than ten consecutive days. DPI found that the school system was not adequately serving students with disabilities.

DPI required the district to develop a protocol for obtaining technical assistance and consultation when students with disabilities are suspended for ten days or more, and for implementing FAPE, including proper communication, documentation, manifestation determinations, Functional Behavior Assessments/Behavior Intervention Plans, specially designed instruction, and educational services. In addition to the protocols, DPI required training of all administrators responsible for discipline in the district, and all exceptional children’s instructional and administrative staff. These systemic changes, prompted by the complaint filed on Aaron’s behalf, stand to benefit a large number of students within the school district.

Clients served through the SEJJP also included a seventh grader reading on a second-grade level, referred to the juvenile court system for school conduct violations. Because of Disability Rights NC’s advocacy, he received comprehensive evaluations and reading assessments, which revealed a learning disability that impacted his ability to read. The school provided compensatory education including specialized reading instruction during the summer with a trained specialist.

The student successfully returned to school, and the case served as a catalyst for the school system to train special education and regular education teachers in data collection for effective behavior plans, rather than relying on suspension and juvenile court referrals to address challenging behaviors. 

Chris Trottier may have retired, but her legacy lives on in the SEJJP program and the education team at Disability Rights NC.

Elaine Whitford joined Disability Rights NC in February 2010 as its first director of development.

1. Losen, Daniel J. and Gillespie, Jonathan, Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School, The Civil Rights Project, August 2012, p. 13.