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A Rising Tide & A Look Back

Updated: Jan 20

On the cusp of a New Year, I think it is so common and important to look back and reflect.

-How did I get to this place?

-Is it what I imagined?

-Could it be different? How?


Below I share a brief look back at the history of special education in the United States and I invite you to reflect on the proximity of exclusion as well as the hope and determination needed both then and now to continue to advocate for inclusion and education rights.

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In 1971 a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of PARC (Pennsylvania Association of Retarded Citizens) and 14 families, who had children that were excluded from school. It was the first ‘right to education’ lawsuit in the country. In 1972 a settlement was reached when a consent decree was issued by U.S. District Court Judge Masterson. The former Pennsylvania education laws were deemed unconstitutional and the state was ordered to provide a free public education to all children.

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Mills v. Board of Education of District of Columbia (1972) was a class action suit that was brought on behalf of seven children and other similarly situated students who resided in the District of Columbia. The students in the plaintiff class had been identified as having behavioral problems or being intellectually disabled, emotionally disturbed, and/or hyperactive. All of the students had been excluded from school or denied educational services that would have addressed the needs that arose from their identified disabilities. The parents and guardians of the students successfully filed suit, arguing that the failure of the school board in the District of Columbia to provide them with a public school education constituted a denial of their right to an education.

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These two important court rulings helped lay the foundation that eventually led to the passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA), which is now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Both are laws that changed the face of American education.

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Prior to 1975 and the enactment of these laws, many schools did not offer special education for students with disabilities. As such, MILLIONS of students were denied appropriate services or excluded from public education entirely. Education Rights came on the heels of the Disability Rights Movement which gained momentum thanks to the Civil Rights Movement. "A rising tide lifts all boats."

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Have you heard that phrase before? It was popularized by President John F. Kennedy. He wasn't talking about education or disability, in fact he was talking about the economy. But I believe the notion applies here. An improvement in rights for one category of people improves the rights for all without diminishing the rights of any. Civil Rights gave way to Disability Rights which gave way to Education Rights. A rising tide.

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But do you have to take a case to the Supreme Court to have a positive impact on others? No. Because a rising tide lifts all boats even if it's "only" in your child's classroom or "only" their school building or "only" their school district. A positive change for a single student has the possibility of positive change for many students.

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So keeping your own child's education in mind, take a moment to reflect and ask those questions we started with at the top of this letter.

-How did we get to this place?

-Is this what I imagined my child's education would look like?

-Could it be different? How?

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Fourteen families in Pennsylvania and seven families in DC changed everything forever. Twenty-one families did that. They recognized inequality and called it out. They demanded more for their children. I’m sure they advocated tirelessly. I’m sure it was extremely hard work. I’m sure the process was frustrating and exhausting. And I know it was worth it.

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If you are exhausted and frustrated, if the work is hard and the process has made you tired- don’t give up. The advocacy you provide for your child may be the rising tide that helps countless others.


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You don't have to go it alone; I can help. Working together, I'll take a look back with you to tease apart how you got to where you are with your child's education. We'll talk about what you imagined for your child. We'll talk about how school could be different. And then we'll make a plan. If you want to learn more about how I can help, please check out my Services page where you can also book a consultation. I look forward to hearing from you and wish you a rising tide in your New Year.


With Love, Light & Gratitude, Janell



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