Leah Kelly’s daughter, Harper, has autism, treatment-resistant depression and extreme social anxiety.
“I used to say that she had alphabet soup,” Kelly said.
The family sold their home when Harper was in elementary school and relocated to Austin ISD in search of better services. For a while, things were mostly good.
But when Harper was in middle school, an attorney representing Austin ISD began showing up to meetings about her special education services and goals. Kelly did not have an attorney in the meetings.
“It’s very contentious,” Kelly said. “It creates an enormous amount of anxiety in me and my family. It doesn’t lend to collaboration.”
In early February, Kelly attended a meeting to discuss how to improve services for Harper. The meeting was delayed while the group waited for a district attorney to join.
“We don’t have legal,” Kelly told a district staffer. “Why do we have legal from the district representing when the parent doesn’t have legal?”
“In light of Fernando’s participation,” the staffer responded, referencing the presence of a special education advocate. Advocates typically have some level of expertise in special education law, and their role is to help parents understand their rights and obtain better services.
“Fernando’s not a lawyer,” Kelly told him.
Kelly asked the district to provide a written policy about the presence of attorneys in these types of meetings. She never received a response.
Three days later, Houston Public Media asked Austin ISD about the practice. Kelly, a member of the district’s Special Education Advisory Committee, also advocated against the practice. She had another meeting in late February — and this time, the district did not send an attorney.
“Our last ARD meeting was successful,” Kelly said in March. “It was literally the only ARD meeting that we’ve had in two years that’s ended in agreement.”
In April, an Austin ISD spokesperson said the inclusion of attorneys in ARD meetings “is no longer a common practice in Austin ISD.”
“We recognize that having an attorney present on behalf of the district can affect what is intended to be a collaborative process,” the spokesperson wrote. “Austin ISD now only has an attorney present in meetings if the student’s family chooses to bring legal representation.”
The spokesperson did not respond to a question about whether “legal representation” includes non-attorney advocates.