Meet the Parents

Special education attorney Robin Ballard does and doesn’t always agree with them

Published in 2010 New Jersey Rising Stars — April 2010

There are six words no parents want to hear from a teacher or a school administrator: “Your child belongs in special education.” They don’t like it. Some really don’t like it. Some sue. That’s when Robin Ballard of Schwartz Simon & Edelstein steps in. It’s her job to represent and advise school districts on how to be legally compliant in such situations.

“It’s hard dealing with parents of disabled children because I feel for them,” she says, “but at the same time, employees in the school system have their professional judgment fully tested, and they are forced to justify—in minute detail—their actions.”

Although she always aims to settle cases, if the matter does go to court, her goal is to educate judges on the nuances of special education law.

“Judges don’t often understand the ins and outs of educating a child with autism,” she says. “We spend a lot of time on what the research says, and what’s proven to be effective.”

Just last year she defended the Fair Lawn School Board against the parents of an autistic preschooler who thought their daughter should be placed with nondisabled peers. “We were working toward it, building the skills,” she says, “but the district felt she wasn’t there yet, and it believed in the autism program it was offering.” And so after an arduous hearing, which stretched out over the course of a year, a Newark judge sided with the school board.

Ballard knows how wrenching this process can be for parents. Five years ago she was on their side. “It was emotionally taxing work,” she says of those days. “Every case felt like David fighting Goliath, with one parent versus the big bad school system.”

She made the switch for one simple reason. “I feel like I can do a lot more good on this side. I can help ensure that the rights and needs of the special-needs population are met while balancing those needs with those of the general-education population.”

Ballard started out a psychology major at Johns Hopkins and wound up in a dual J.D./Psy.D. (psychology) program at Widener University. There, she served internships that put her in contact with people suffering from addiction or mental illness or both. She wrote her dissertation on the Americans with Disabilities Act and graduated in May 2001, landing a job in New Jersey with Sussan & Greenwald. She excelled there and began representing parents, losing only one trial in three years. In that one, her clients were parents who were fighting to place their child, who had a communications impairment, in a language-enriched school that was out of the district. That was a tough loss.

“It’s difficult because the parents sank so much money and passion into fighting,” she says. After the outcome, the district moved the student to a different program within the district, and the child started to thrive. Despite losing at trial, the parents ended up thanking Ballard for her role in the child’s development. “They knew I gave it my all,” Ballard says.

As she always does when the welfare of kids is at stake. The right decision isn’t always the easiest decision but it’s one she’s always willing to make. “Going to court isn’t something we do lightly,” she says, “but we’ll fight when it makes sense to fight.”

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