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An Unexpected Journey: From Corporate Law to Special Education Advocacy with Rebecca Sassouni, Esq.
In this episode of the Rising Leaders of New York podcast, welcome guest Rebecca Sassouni, Esq., Mediator, Attorney for Students Of Counsel, Wisselman Harounian Family Law.
Tune in to this episode as Rebecca shares insights into:
- education challenges as a result of the pandemic
- advocating for special needs children, including how to challenge a school’s classification decision
- the influence of ai and technology on student representation
- the challenges of maintaining zero tolerance policies
- importance of knowing how to protect children’s rights
Rebecca Sassouni understands the nexus of relationships among children, families, schools and emerging law. Her practice consists of advising, consulting and representing students of all ages in public and private school settings, at meetings, at mediation and hearings to navigate this complex web.
She brings a compassionate, practical, economical and consensus-minded approach to serve her clients’ goals. Rebecca coaches her clients to grow and advocate for themselves after her representation concludes. Long committed to community families and children and to pro bono and public service, Sassouni is available to address civic groups, schools, Bar Associations and SEPTAs.
Learn more about Rebecca Sassouni:
Visit her website: https://www.rebeccasassounilaw.com/
Connect with Rebecca on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/rebeccasassouni/
About the Rising Leaders of New York Podcast
The Rising Leaders of New York Podcast is centered around conversations with today’s and future leaders of New York City, discussing the challenges and issues relevant to New Yorkers.
Subscribe to the Rising Leaders of New York Podcast Video Series on Youtube
Read the full transcript:
VOICEOVER ( 00:00:01): Welcome to Rising Leaders of New York with your host David S. Zwerin of Hill & Moin LLP. They present to you conversations with today’s and future leaders of New York City discussing the challenges and issues relevant to New Yorkers. You can find this show at www.hillmoin.com and on Youtube, LinkedIn, Apple podcast, Spotify, Google podcast and more. Now, here are the hosts of Rising Leaders of New York.
DAVID ( 00:00:38): Hello, everybody. My name is David. I am the senior trial attorney at Hill & Moin LLP. We’re a plaintiff’s personal injury law firm, uh focusing particularly on seriously injured victims of construction accidents and premises liability cases. Um But I also get the distinct pleasure of being the host of this podcast which is Rising Leaders of New York where each so I get to speak with and have interesting conversations with some of the leaders who are really on the cutting edge of issues that we as New Yorkers need to know about today. I’m joined by a wonderful guest, Rebecca Esquire. Uh She is an education lawyer handles, uh a lot of issues dealing with kids, uh who are having issues at school often intertwined with issues with the parents uh in the school such as uh suspensions, violations of code of conduct. Uh I know there have been all of us, of us who have parents, which are not all of our listeners are, but for those of us who do have parents, you know that the last few years uh during the pandemic and emerging out of it have brought a lot of challenges for uh the education of, of young people. And I look forward to having a very interesting conversation and learning about uh what Rebecca has been doing the last few years and what she thinks are some of the things you need to know about. So, uh with that in mind, Rebecca, thank you so much for joining me here today on rising leaders of New York.
REBECCA ( 00:02:04): I’m so flattered to be here. Thank you David and thank you to HIll & Moin for this wonderful opportunity. I’ve known Cheryl Moyne and your practice for quite a while. And I’m, I’m really flattered to be in your company.
DAVID ( 00:02:16): Thank you. Oh, it’s my pleasure, Rebecca. Uh tell us a little about yourself. How did you become a lawyer? And how did you get into this field of uh education law?
REBECCA ( 00:02:27): So, I became a lawyer um nearly 30 years ago I graduated and um really, I went into the corporate realm to be perfectly honest, I didn’t even know about the practice area that I’m now specializing in. Um, I graduated from hostile law and went to a corporate law firm. Um, I retired from the practice of law for a period of time to raise my own family. Uh, I was fortunate that I was able to do so, but I returned to the practice a number of years ago, um, maybe about seven or eight years ago as a parent who had raised four Children and including a student with special education needs of my own, I came to understand the nexus of law that has to um comes to bear. Uh whether through the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 504 Act. Um the I DEA and interestingly, my work as a student back at Hofstra in the disability law clinic actually came to bear. But back when I was at Hofstra, I was studying contracts and got a Contracts Prize. Who knew
DAVID ( 00:03:30): what a what is it that, that brought you back to the field of law after you see being a lawyer? Like what, what was it that happened in your life that made you decide to, to go back and start this career?
REBECCA ( 00:03:44): Well, I mean, I’ve, I’ve been blessed that I, um as I said, I raised a family. Um I became a somewhat of a resource to many of the people around me in our community where I reside and I was in effect um an advocate for many people around me, even while I wasn’t practicing um, and when I went through the journey of having to classify my own child and then also the, the, um, I guess the, the experience of having my child declassified, which was a huge mistake and it’s a, it’s a, a trap that a lot of families fall for. Um, and, and
DAVID ( 00:04:24): declassified.
REBECCA ( 00:04:26): Exactly. So often what happens? I’m glad for the question is families will have learned that their child has disabilities, will then get their child classified under the law under I DEA the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. And then we find out from any given school district that their child is all better is meeting their goals and is doing so well. In fact that they don’t need to be classified anymore and often naive families and I was rather naive myself will say, oh gee how wonderful my child is meeting their goals and no longer needs to be classified. Big mistake because what goes with that is loss of services, loss of the educational supports and accommodations that the child needs. Because I went through that arc myself first, the arc of learning that my child needed to be classified, which is a difficult one for a parent. Some parents are not ready to hear that their child has a learning disability or other disabilities. And then I went through the arc of learning that wait, my child lost all their services and needed them. Um is how I realized that I could be of service to others. Um and to hold their hand through the process of getting their child’s classified, um, often, uh, so I attend families um needs when they go to CS E the Committee on special education to 504 meetings. The again that relevant statute of law trying to get their Children classified, I help them get the accommodations that their Children need. I also attend um meetings with families when their Children are suspended. Often we see and this is a statistical um certainty that students are suspended because of violations of code of conduct. But sometimes there’s a nexus between a disability and why they violate codes of conduct. And that’s again, uh an area that I specialize in, I’m
DAVID ( 00:06:35): curious and as, as a parent myself, um if, if a parent is faced with that kind of conversation, they had Children with uh some sort of special needs, maybe they have an IEP and a school was to tell the parent, oh, your students doing great. Uh We wanted to classify them. What can the parents do? Is there a recourse to say? I don’t know about that. I don’t think that’s a great idea. How do you get involved when a school advances that argument? And it’s not in the best interest of the child.
REBECCA ( 00:07:11): It’s a great question. And as lawyers, we know that it’s very important to create a record and to maintain that record fastidiously. So wherever possible families and anyone listening to this podcast needs to know to be very cooperative with their school districts, but also to maintain very copious records of how their child is doing, whether their goals are actually being met. And then, um where there is not consensus on that issue of whether the goals are actually being met and whether the progress is being made to realize that they have recourse, they can bring in their own team, their own mental health providers, their own um physical therapist, occupational therapist, neuropsychologists, attorneys to the team table, whether at 504 or CS E, if the need arises to appeal from a decision of the CS E or 504. Well, then there are appeals to be had at impartial hearing. But my view on this is that wherever possible, we try to go for consensus at the CS E or the 504 table because again, as attorneys, we know it’s always harder to appeal from a bad decision. Um So we try to get in at the first crack at the apple.
DAVID ( 00:08:35): That makes sense. So I’m I’m curious, um how do you reach this kind of consensus? And why would a school have different sort of goals than perhaps the parent? Like, what kind of goals are they saying are being met? But a parent sees something different, it says they’re not being met. Why would they, why would there be a disparate outcome like that?
REBECCA ( 00:9:01): Well, to be fair. All students um in public schools are entitled to a free and appropriate public education, but to answer your question, the definition of appropriate is not necessarily um unlimited. Um So where the disputes typically arise are not only on the threshold issue of whether or not a student has a disability but rather on what’s inadequate and uh appropriate amount of service uh and an accommodation. And so the disputes are typically on that and of course, uh as in general, a family might want more and a school district might want less. And it’s a really, it’s an, it’s an allocation of public resources at the end of the day. And, you know, my answer is in generalities, but of also contemplating a public school setting. Frequently, I have clients also who approach who are private school parents. And there, of course, you have really a contract analysis because, you know, you have people who are electing to enroll their Children in a private school setting and um who still wish to avail themselves of the um the supports of an IEP or a 504 plan. And then unfortunately, um but very commonly, you’ll have situations where a, a student has for a period of time, been enrolled in a public school. And again, having created a record where the denial of the free and appropriate public education has accumulated for a certain number of years and it’s demonstrable that they are not receiving the free and appropriate public education. Well, at that point, the matter might go to hearing and whether or not it actually makes it to a conclusion as a matter of law or by settlement, often there too, there will be a, uh, uh, a private setting for tuition and for tuition reimbursement to a private school. So that happens pretty often.
DAVID ( 00:11:07): when a parent hears that, uh, the school wants to classify their Children or some or they have some sort of concern. Uh And you mentioned that eventually these things can go to a hearing. How does that actually play out if someone were to contact you? How do you go about requesting the hearing or appearing at the hearing? Is it virtual is in person? How does it work?
REBECCA ( 00:11:29): So, um all of this is governed by um the New York State Education law and the gov and governed by the laws of the commissioner of education in New York State and just like any other administrative hearing, it’s, um, it’s guided by, um, you know, appropriate notice giving and, um, and there are timelines in place. And so it really is important that if a family listening to this is actually feeling that they’re on the verge of needing to go to hearing or to have a dispute, um, that they create the record that they reach out to an attorney and that, um, that they preserve all their rights.
DAVID ( 00:12:08): What are some of the issues that I guess you, in your practice, you’re seeing that have been different in the last few years. Obviously, the pandemic really changed a lot of things. There was a, I’ve noticed, uh, you know, a big change in how schools operate, how kids behave since they’re going back to school. I’m curious what, what you see are, are some of the issues that have really cropped up in the last three years.
REBECCA ( 00:12:32): So, I mean, broadly, I only receive referrals on matters that involve youngsters, right? People who are involved in whether it’s all the way up to high school education, those are minors or sometimes even college and graduate students. Um but typically my clients are minors and but even at the graduate level, I would say that when someone is involved in a school related dispute, I am representing someone who is involved in a family nexus. So and what as you said in your introduction, the nexus between families and schools um in particular with the COVID pandemic, but also with the politicization of education in the last number of years has become particularly fraught and divided. Um very specifically, we’re seeing AAA high number of uh mental health concerns in students, whether it’s school refusal issues, mental health issues. Um often um I have a lot of intake now on not just mental health and emotional disturbance, which is actually a classifiable um a condition under the law for special education purposes. Um in some instances but also gender dysmorphia um concerns about gender identity, how that plays out on bullying issues and civil rights concerns. So, uh for all the bullying issues that we’ve always been concerned about and cyberbullying issues and the dignity for all students act. These types of issues play out in schools pretty frequently. And um the clients that I see are the ones whose parents have the good fortune and the resources to reach out to seek legal help. Of course, you know, more broadly, there’s these issues are endemic, but I represent one student and one family at a time.
DAVID ( 00:14:33): Now, are the, is the student actually your client if he’s he or she is under 17 or is that on behalf of the family? Um And I’m wondering what ends up happening? Are there ever issues where if your, your client is the youngster that there are problems that may arise, I guess and also dealing with the family, perhaps some of these issues stem from a bad family background. Um How do these things play out in making sure you’re best representing and getting the best outcomes for the student, which is really what matters at the end of the day.
REBECCA ( 00:15:07): So, I mean, it’s a great question and it’s actually the reason why um earlier this year, I moved my practice over to BF counsel to a family law firm. Um You know, as you would imagine, my practice is a niche practice. I’m only representing students. And as I said, they typically come to me via their, their parents, that’s who has the means to retain an attorney. But at the same time, my, my actual object and my client is, is the, is typically the minor. Uh and that’s who I’m trying to seek uh help for and I’m counseling. So, um it is, it is sort of a triangulated approach. I’m not going to advance the interests of a youngster unless I have the consent of the parents. And there are often differences of opinion as you would imagine whether it’s on vaccination or unmasking during the pandemic or on um what goals they’re seeking for their child. Uh And what classification in a 504 or an IEP setting um or in a suspension matter of what, what they will stipulate to uh in a settlement. Um So I do a lot of, I’m going to say hand holding a lot of counseling, a lot of making sure that we’re all on the same page. Um because certainly I don’t want to advance the interest of just one member of the family uh to the exclusion of another.
DAVID ( 00:16:34): And what, what ends up happening if the student and the parents just have diametrically opposed viewpoints of a matter? Do you have to find a way to reconcile it and what happens if they can’t be?
REBECCA ( 00:16:47): Well, I, I I’m I’m a very good shuttle diplomat. So, um what I uh typically do in, in my conference room space is spend time with the student, then spend time with the parents um encourage um I guess what I would call caucus. Um and you know, reaching consensus as the family unit um and then advancing together. Um and, and always reassuring the clients that there’s, and as I’m sure you do in your practice, there’s no settlement to achieve, to be achieved, no outcome to be achieved without the full consent of all the parties.
DAVID ( 00:17:30): Um Initially, I’m curious to have your opinion about is what are some of the major code of conduct violations you’re seeing in the last years that uh are cropping up. I’m wondering in this new age where, you know, we’re hearing a lot about uh ta I and how much A I will change the name? Is that something that is, is that students are getting their hands on? Is that causing problems for students or teachers? Uh What are some of the, of the big issues that technology is having in influencing uh your representation of Children?
REBECCA ( 00:18:9): It’s a great question and um you know, I hate to say that there’s the run of the mill sort of situations and fact patterns, but, you know, plagiarism in general is of course a huge code of conduct violation category um particularly in the upper grades when we’re talking about the high school years going on into college and into graduate programs. Um And of course, uh the stakes are very high for those students as they get older. Because by that point in time, by high school, the students are looking to mostly advance to college frequently, they don’t want blemishes on their academic record. Um that will preclude them from going to college. And by the college and the graduate years, they’re already paying tuition or their families are paying tuition and then considering um advancing to their careers and again, do not want to lose credits tuition or have blemishes on their academic um credentials. Um And as you point out there is, um, now just such easy opportunities with this chat GP T but even before with turn it in dot com and these other ways to cheat and then for, for professors to catch the cheating and the plagiarism, um, cheating is rampant. Um And so what, what I see is that, um, families are well served and students are well served well a not to cheat. Um, but b to try to get counsel immediately and to try to ST uh try, try to stipulate and try to negotiate because what’s going on, um in general is a zero tolerance policy whether at um colleges or at high schools. Um and below. Um because really each of these instances where schools find out about the cheating is an opportunity not only to punish the one child who’s caught, but to send notice to all the others to cease Right. So they want to make examples of the students who are caught. Um And so if there’s ever an opportunity to try to negotiate and, and to show um not to deny that they have actually maybe made a mistake, but rather to just try to negotiate and apologize and explain that it was a mistake because in general, um there’s a zero tolerance policy and if I could just add, there’s also a zero tolerance policy very often on a whole host of other codes of conduct violations that are very frequent fact patterns whether on um what would be characterized as sort of hate speech or bullying in school contexts, um, harassment type situations. And then of course, you know, we haven’t talked about it but, you know, there’s, there’s a, there’s a bringing, um, being found with um, weapons at school and often what I’ll find is that a family will say, but my child is not dangerous. All it was was a Swiss army knife. My child is not the next school shooter. And of course, the families who I represent, I believe them and I defend their Children. Um because that’s also a very common fact pattern. The one child who accidentally brought something to school who really is not a, you know, the child who’s the next school shooter necessarily. But that being said it’s a violation of a code of conduct. It’s a very common observe uh occurrence and there are zero tolerance policies in effect everywhere. Because again, some of these situations are quite sadly endemic in the society in which we now live.
DAVID ( 00:22:01): How do you get around these various violations? Bringing a weapon onto school or a child being caught cheating if they are zero tolerance, if, if schools are out to uh ensure that uh a certain outcome is reached and they have no tolerance. Where do you come into get a, a resolution here? How does that happen?
REBECCA ( 00:22:26): It’s another great question. And I go back to what I, what I mentioned before, each situation and each child and each fact pattern at the end of the day is different because the, the representation is per situation. So part of the analysis is, well, what actually happens? Part of it is also, well, who is the child? Is the student themselves? Um a person with disabilities, are they themselves in a protected class? If so, is that part of the analysis? Are they protected in some way by law? Um If not, well, you try to negotiate, but at the end of the day, those zero tolerance policies are a tough hurdle. Um And you know, as I said, at the beginning of the podcast, when I went to law school, it never occurred to me that the area in which I now practice is an area of law or that families and students would need lawyers. But the fact of the matter is they frequently do.
DAVID ( 00:23:34): very interesting and I guess with, with that in mind, are there any other, uh, major issues you want to talk about any new developments of the law as we start to come out of, uh, the pandemic that you think people should be aware of as we move forward?
REBECCA ( 00:23:54): I think the main, um, trends that I’m observing is that, um, after the pandemic, um, there has been a great deal of bridge building that needs to take place between various schools, whether private or public or colleges or elementary and everything in between and their um their parent bodies and families. And that’s mainly because people were home for a long period of time with their Children and some people were better equipped for that than others. So, um there were, there were higher instances of neglect, so we have more cases of, of Children being caught up in the CPS network. There were also higher instances of families looking over their child’s shoulder learning with their Children, but maybe not liking what it was that their Children were being taught. Um And so it’s going to take a period of time for families and uh students, I suppose to um be in a place of trust with their schools. But, you know, those are again, sort of the broader endemic um situations that I think will take time to rectify. From my perspective. My practice hasn’t really changed. I am representing one student at a time. Um and the referrals really haven’t really changed either. It’s either a student with disabilities or a student who, you know, needs a private placement, um, or a student who has been suspended. And from my perspective, I just do my level best to advise each family one at a time.
DAVID ( 00:25:38): Well, Rebecca Sassouni, I really want to thank you for joining us today. I can tell you as a parent myself of, to, uh, young boys in elementary school, I learned a lot and uh I’m very glad to know that uh God forbid any of these issues ever crop up in the future. I have a little better idea of what to do, what not to do and who to call if uh we need to uh make sure their rights need to be preserved. Uh But hopefully, I don’t ever have to call you and I don’t have these issues, but I’m really glad to know that parents like me, uh will know how to call you. And with that in mind, if someone does want to call you, how would they do that?
REBECCA ( 00:26:14): Thank you, David. And I appreciate what you said very much. It’s almost like you read my mind. I always say to people, I’m the kind of attorney, I hope you never need. Um But sometimes people do. So, um the way to reach me is through my firm, I’m of Council at Whistle Harun and our practice is located in Carl Place. But of course, we do virtual appearances as well. My phone number at the office is 516773 8300 and the email address is Rebecca Rebecca@lawjaw.com.
DAVID ( 00:26:54): Excellent. Thank you so much, Rebecca for joining me today and thank you everybody for uh joining me here today. Uh Again, my name is David. I am the senior trial attorney at Hill and if you want to reach me or our law firm, you can reach us at 212668 6000. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org or you can find us on the web at hillmoin.com. Until next time when I’m joined by another rising leader of New York, my name is David. Have a nice day, everyone. Bye bye.
VOICEOVER ( 00:37:42): You’ve been listening to rising leaders of New York hosted by David Zwerin of Hill & Moin LLP. You can catch prior episodes at www.hillmoin.com and on Youtube, LinkedIn, Apple podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts and more. Thank you for your positive reviews, comments and sharing this show with others.