This weekend I had the pleasure of attending the annual Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) conference in Baltimore, Maryland, a short and immensely enjoyable 3-hour Amtrak train ride from NY Penn Station. This year's conference boasted the largest attendance ever, attracting approximately 550 attendees from all over the country.
This was my 5th COPAA conference. As I contemplated this while roaming the corridors of the Waterfront Marriott where the conference was held, moving from one session to the next, this felt like a significant milestone for me. As usual, the conference gave me an opportunity to reflect on where I’ve been over the last year. It was also nice to look around and recognize a significant number of the attendees.
The conference offered the usual assortment of trainings and workshops. Some highlights for me included:
Cross Examination of Experts - Great full-day workshop with Frank Hickman and Tracey Walsh focusing on the art of cross examination.
Legal and Academic Perspectives on America's Public Education - Big-picture, policy-related session considering the roots of education from the 1600’s through the present, new movements including online education and school choice, and the usual hot-button issues of accountability, high-stakes testing, evaluations, and teacher performance. The afternoon portion of the day (a bit harder to get through perhaps due to sleep deprivation kicking in) addressed the intricacies of the Common Core and Universal Design for Learning, and their implications for special needs students.
Keynote Speaker LeDerick Horne - This year's speaker, LeDerrick Horne, truly delivered. He spoke about the difficulties he experienced as a child with a learning disability and the constant fear of public embarrassment that he endured on a daily basis. When he was close to breaking down, he chose instead to break through. He pushed through elementary and high school, attended college, and obtained his undergraduate degree. He has become an entrepreneur and performance poet who has worked as an advocate on the national, state and local level. While he continues to struggle with his learning difficulties, he has devised useful tools to help him cope. His presentation also included a poem or two. More information available at www.lederick.com.
General Session - Matthew Cohen delivered an impassioned speech, acknowledging the gains we have made in the areas of disability and civil rights law, but emphasizing the big steps we still need to take to move forward. He spoke forcefully, peppering the audience with real-life examples of injustices he has seen in cases he has handled, and the energy in the room rose quickly. That led to a group discussion with the audience, which led to several people speaking about the importance of embracing the concept of individuals with different abilities and focusing what unique skills people have rather than focusing on what they lack, which resonated with me and reminded me of my visit to the Ann Sullivan Center.
Life Planning for Families of Loved Ones with Special Needs - An emphasis on special needs trusts and guardianships, and how those issues can be tied into due process hearings and/or settlement agreements.
Creating a Winning Stay Put Argument - An interesting session that highlighted some of the many permutations that one might encounter when dealing with the issue of "stay put" and the question of what should be considered a child's last agreed upon placement.
Retrospective Testimony/Monday Morning Quarterbacking - Unfortunately I did not attend this event, but after hearing everyone talk about it, I wished I had. The session focused on the issue of retrospective testimony, and the implications of recent court decisions regarding this issue.
A Case Study: An Effort To Grow Special Education Advocacy Awareness - Andy Cuddy presented on his recent media campaign to reach impoverished special needs parents in Rochester through the use of television commercial spots. The campaign emphasized raising awareness in a tactful way. While some may have dismissed the event off-hand, I was glad I attended. I found the presentation to be professional, informative, and thought-provoking.
Redefining Functional Skills for the 21st Century - This workshop helped me to reconsider what it means for a child with special needs to be "functional" in the 21st century, with a focus on inclusion in a general education setting.
Latest Top 40 Chart-Topping Decisions - The most entertaining case law review that I have ever attended (and it's no easy task to make this stuff exciting). The presenters delivered their top 40 cases over the last several years in the format of a top 40 music countdown, highlighting fact scenarios that were particularly ridiculous and excerpts from decisions containing language that was particularly powerful.
COPAA is a great organization to join if you think you might benefit from a network of attorneys, advocates, parents, and others involved in the area of special needs. Parent membership costs $50 per year and provides access to a wonderful community. For more information, you can visit the COPAA website: http://www.copaa.org/.
Next year's conference is scheduled for March 5-8, 2015 at Paradise Point Resort & Spa in San Diego, California!