Speaking for the Speechless
Gabrielle C. Sereni fights for special ed kids
Published in 2011 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine
By Amy White on May 19, 2011
School districts in Delaware County owe a debt of gratitude to Philadelphia’s daily law journal, The Legal Intelligencer. When Gabrielle C. Sereni, partner and special education department chair at Raffaele & Puppio, was fresh out of law school, she clerked for the Honorable Robert F. Kelly, senior U.S. District Court judge. “I was just flipping through the Intelligencer one day, going through the legal ads—because that’s what you do when you’re a clerk because you think, ‘What the heck am I going to do? I can’t stay here forever’—and came across a blind ad for a school lawyer,” she says. Immediately intrigued thanks to her experience as a public school teacher, she called.
That phone call led to, well, a calling. “I love it. I absolutely love it,” Sereni says of her role as a special education lawyer over the last decade. She’s explored the practice area—“which is a very complicated, specialized field”—from all angles. The first part of her career was spent serving public school districts, intermediate units and charter schools; for five years after that, working for families at the federal court level. No matter in which corner she sat, her end goal was the same: “Helping ensure that children with special needs get the educational services they are entitled to. That’s what I envision a special education attorney is called to do,” she says.
Last year was a landmark one for Sereni. While at McAndrews Law Offices in Berwyn, she helped settle Vicky M. and Darin M. v. Northeastern Educational Intermediate Unit 19 et al. The case “spanned many years,” she says. “It was very important and close to my heart because the [seven] minor plaintiffs were either entirely or mostly nonverbal children with autism being provided educational services in an autistic support classroom run by the local intermediate unit.” Throughout the 2001 to 2003 school years, the children’s teacher allegedly committed significant acts of abuse. “She was screaming in their faces, stomping on their feet, crushing their fingers, squeezing their ears … oh, God,” Sereni says. “The whole list of things she was doing to them is chilling.”
The students couldn’t speak up for themselves, so they endured the daily abuse. After two years, however, two of the classroom aides came forward. “The teacher was removed from the classroom, but it was a little too late by then,” Sereni says. All seven children, ages 5 to 11 at the time, now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the abuse. The case settled for $5 million.
In December 2010, Sereni left McAndrews for Raffaele & Puppio in Media, where she and partner Michael V. Puppio are embarking on a new journey. “Essentially, we’re building a new division of Raffaele & Puppio from scratch,” she says. “We want to offer customized special education representation to area school districts that are currently using nonlocal special education counsel.
“We really want to offer the best services possible from a local firm,” she continues. “Why should someone have to pay $160 an hour just to have someone drive over? That’s $320 just for the attorney to show up.” She expects the practice to be fully actualized in the next two years and to operate like any mid- to large-sized specialized firm.
“Building a new legal department from scratch is pretty challenging. Work is coming in more quickly than we anticipated, which, of course, is a good thing,” she says. “But there’s only so much time before we’ll have to hire someone because eventually, I won’t be able to be everywhere.”
The firm is committed to building this department together, Sereni says, “but, in terms of autonomy, it’s me. Which, you know? Is pretty cool.”
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