Texas Law students win disabilities rights case

Amirtha Jayakumaran , General News Reporter

Texas Law’s Disability Rights Clinic successfully defended its first client this semester after representing a Texas student with autism who was denied a free, appropriate public education in her sixth grade year. 

UT Law students with the Disability Rights Clinic represent clients with a variety of disabilities in many legal contexts, primarily low-income parents with disabled children in the Texas public school system, clinic director Lucille Wood said. Third-year law students Mary Jones, Nicole Schilling and Brad Steel worked on the sixth-grader’s case with the goal of preventing the student from being sent to a restrictive school where she would not receive the necessary accommodations.  

“We were basically saying, ‘Hey look, you guys are wrong for suggesting that she needs to go to a more restrictive environment,’” Steel said. “If you implement some of these proven accommodations and resources for this kid that have worked in the past, let’s try those before we send them to a more strict environment.” 

The case was taken nearly a year ago through a clinic called SPEAK — Support Parents’ Education, Advocacy, and Knowledge — where students were able to offer pro bono assistance to the family.

“Parents, I think, a lot of the time don’t realize what rights they have and what rights their children have,” Steel said. “Even if they do recognize those rights, they don’t always have the means or resources to pursue justice for their kids.”

To prepare for the trial, the law students reviewed the record, identified witnesses and talked to experts to assist the client in supporting their claims, Schilling said. 

“When you get to trial, you have to think of the strategy that’s involved,” Schilling said. “Over the summer, we spent extensive time just practicing our examinations and cross-examinations.”

After winning the trial, Steel said the student will have access to the services that have helped her make behavioral and academic progress in the past. Wood said thanks to the law students winning the trial, the student’s sixth-grade experience gets to be like any other.

“The students are going to go on and do very different things,” Wood said. “When they leave, they’re going to be able to help other families that don’t have the resources, (such as) the knowledge of the law and what it affords them and the abilities to pursue services on behalf of their child.”