By Annie Butterworth Jones
“It felt like a calling.”
That’s how Ft. Lauderdale attorney Michelle Tanzer describes her role as the founder of Assisting Students with Disabilities, a pro bono initiative that pairs students with attorney advocates across the state. The program, now in its second year, helps students obtain the special education services they need to reach their full potential.
For Tanzer, a partner with Holland & Knight, the cause is a personal one.
Her son, Alex, was diagnosed with autism in 1998, and helpful resources and guidance were difficult for Tanzer to find.
“It’s beyond overwhelming to receive a diagnosis of a disability,” said Tanzer, who was told her son would need to be institutionalized for life. Instead, today he is a successful student in a mainstream program at Boca High.
“From my personal trials and tribulations, I realized that the majority of the population doesn’t have a legal degree or advanced education. They couldn’t possibly work their way through the maze to be a successful advocate for their own child.”
Tanzer decided to put her expertise to good use in 2010, when she took on three separate pro bono cases representing students challenging the tier placement assigned to them by the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. (APD assigns students with disabilities to tiers determining how much can be spent for services annually.)
“Many children, we felt, were wrongly placed in a tier that didn’t provide enough services and benefits for them,” said Tanzer. The cases ended successfully, and, said Tanzer, “that’s when my phone starting ringing off the hook. I realized the depth and width of the problem facing this demographic.”
Tanzer’s success garnered the attention of Disabilities Rights Florida, a not-for-profit agency that partnered with Holland & Knight to form the Assisting Students with Disabilities program. ASD began officially processing cases in September, and the program has been extended to West Palm Beach, Tampa, Lakeland, Jacksonville, and Miami. Since September, ASD has enlisted 25 attorneys and opened 10 cases, each helping students to receive the benefits they need to succeed.
In particular, Tanzer remembered one case in which a student was receiving minimal services in a school setting, and he was eligible to receive more. As a result of ASD and its advocates, the student’s services quadrupled.
“It’s not like a PI lawyer that can come to you and say, ‘I got a $2 million verdict,’” admitted Tanzer. “These aren’t cash settlement kind of things; it’s all so incremental. But it’s these incremental differences that can change the life of a child.
“For a student who has autism and cannot speak, getting speech and language therapy 15 minutes a day could change the course of their entire life.”
Through the current partnership, Disabilities Rights Florida serves as a clearinghouse for potential cases, using outreach tools to inform communities about ASD. Attorneys for ASD are then matched with a child, often continuing to serve them through the different processes they may encounter as they apply for the appropriate benefits and resources.
Each attorney participating in the program receives specialized instruction and five Bar approved CLE hours and support from Disabilities Rights Florida. Holland & Knight attorneys also receive 10 to 20 firm-creditable pro bono hours per student assisted. Although all of the attorneys currently serving ASD are employed at Holland & Knight, the plan is for that to change.
“The way I envision this is that lawyers from any firm could participate in the program,” said Tanzer. “There are far more students to be helped than just the open cases we have.”
In fact, said Tanzer, the need will continue to be great.
“The disabled student population does all it can just to survive. Without this representation, without this program, they would not otherwise have access to the advice, the counsel, and the advocacy we’re providing for them.”
Tanzer has big goals for 2012, including doubling the current number of attorneys on the ASD team. If that goes as planned, Tanzer hopes to have helped 100 students by the end of the year.
“All you have to do is want to help, and you can help. It’s so simple,” said Tanzer. “It doesn’t involve litigation, so this is a very important way for transactional lawyers, non-litigators, to be able to help.
“A lot of people say, ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do.’ You know what? This is something you can do. You don’t have to be anything other than a person who cares enough to try to help.”
For more information about the ASD program and ways you can help, call Michelle Tanzer at (954) 468-7914.