A Q&A With SGW’s Alex Hilsen, Esq. 

Alex Hilsen is an attorney and Certified Financial Planner at Sussan Greenwald & Wesler.  In the following interview, he answers some of the most common questions he has fielded lately from parents. 

Q: Who needs to think about estate planning and special needs trusts – everyone, or just parents who have children whom they expect will not live independently as adults?

A: Everyone with a child should have an estate plan. It lays out or directs how your money will be distributed and who should care for your children in case of emergency or death.  If a parent believes that his or her child may eventually qualify for governmental benefits, then that parent may want a special needs trust. That parent should think about creating it when the child is young.

Q.  Does it make sense to address trust and estate issues if you don't have a lot of money set aside right now?

A: Yes. You do not need to have a lot of income set aside to benefit from creating a trust or engaging in estate planning now. People often have assets they don't consider--i.e, through pension plans, work, life insurance policies--sources they may not be aware of.

Federal and state law requires that accelerated programs be made available to students with disabilities and that entry requirements for such programs not discriminate against students who require special services. Furthermore, if a student requires modifications such as extended time or a computer for taking notes, the school must provide those same modifications in any accelerated or gifted programming in which that child participates. It has been eight years since a letter issued by the Office of Civil Rights clarified this law for schools and parents. Despite the letter, confusion still seems to exist among parents and educators. However, the law is clear: Parents simply cannot be asked to choose between gifted programming and special education services or modifications that are designed to serve their child's individualized learning needs.

The laws that entitle students with disabilities to a free, appropriate public education include the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (Title II). A December 26, 2007 open letter from the Office of Civil Rights made clear that the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and the U.S. Department of Education are committed to acting promptly to remedy violations of students with disabilities' right to participate in challenging academic programs such as Advanced Placement classes. A special needs student's academic program is required to be individualized. OCR has made clear that the requirement for individualized programming determinations for a student with special needs is violated "when schools ignore the student's individual needs and automatically deny a qualified student with a disability needed related aids and services in an accelerated class or program."

What can possibly get done in a fifteen minute parent-teacher conference? It can seem like a waste of time. It’s not enough time to hear all about your child’s progress, or even hear about all the subjects he or she will be learning. It is barely parentTeacherConfenough time to take a peek at a few samples of your child’s work which your teacher likely will have selected to demonstrate your child’s progress. The teacher might address--gently or not so gently--issues or challenges your child is facing. As much as parents care deeply about their child’s education—especially when they already are aware that their child has special needs including learning challenges—they often dread the parent-teacher conference. The best you can hope for is actually something well worth bringing about: The start of an open dialogue.

 How can you start that dialogue and make your parent-teacher conference the most helpful for your child? Here are a few suggestions:

--Let the teacher know you are open to hearing her comments—positive and negative. Your teacher can be your best ally in uncovering what your child is struggling with. You want to know if other children are teasing your child, or if your child misses social cues. Your teacher is more likely to tell you if she understands that you will not look to blame her as the source of the problem.

--Spend most of the time listening. Your teacher will most likely have given thought to the information she shares. Take notes.

Thursday, 17 September 2015 17:10

Obama Administration Makes Push For Preschool Inclusion

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Federal officials say that all children with disabilities should be able to attend preschool alongside their typically-developing peers.

Nearly four months after requesting public feedback on the issue, the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services are jointly issuing guidance to states, school districts and early childhood providers urging them to make a place for kids with special needs.

“As our country continues to move forward on the critical task of expanding access to high-quality early learning programs for all children, we must do everything we can to ensure that children with disabilities are part of that,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in announcing the effort this week during his annual back-to-school bus tour.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015 13:57

Charter Schools

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Charter Schools Owe a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to Special Needs Students

What is a charter school? Most people know that charter schools are alternatives to local public schools. Charter schools are public schools, but are operated independently of local boards of education. They usually receive federal money as well as additional private donations or grants.  Unlike their local public school counterparts, charter schools are privately managed by their own charter school Board of Trustees.

Charter schools have leeway in determining their policies and programming. For this reason, they can be attractive to parents seeking an alternative learning environment. However, charter school boards are not free of government regulation. In fact, for the most part, they are bound by the same rules as all other public schools when it comes to identifying and serving students with special needs.


Food bullying is not to be taken lightly. For a child with a life threatening allergy it can mean serious illness or death--not to mention the anxiety and other psychological consequences from experiencing both bullying and a physical response to a life-threatening allergen. We now know that fifty percent of children with food allergies who are in grades six through ten report being the victim of food allergy bullying. Fortunately, food allergy bullying law has evolved. Education will take more time, as schools, children with allergies, their peers, teachers, administrators and health care professionals work together to implement the law and keep children with food allergies safe in school.


United States District Court Upholds SGW Victory Against Summit Schools

SGW lawyers

Sussan Greenwald and Wesler together with co-counsel Connell Foley prevailed over Summit Schools in a case that proves that "meaningful education benefit" is a concept that has teeth in  New Jersey. On July 27, 2015, in T.O. et al v. Summit City Board of Education, the United States District Court affirmed the July 2, 2012 decision of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).  The A LJ had held that Summit failed to provide a free, appropriate public education to a child, J.O., who suffered from apraxia of speech and dyspraxia. Jayne M. Wesler, a partner at SGW, tried the case before the ALJ for  J.O.'s parents.

Thursday, 30 July 2015 14:35

Schools Warned On Speech Services For Kids With Autism

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Federal education officials are reminding schools not to skimp on needed speech and language services for children with autism.
In a letter to states, officials from the U.S. Department of Education say they’ve heard that an increasing number of kids on the spectrum may not be receiving services from speech-language pathologists at school. Moreover, such professionals are frequently left out of the evaluation process and are often not present at meetings to determine what services a child should receive under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the department said.

Wednesday, 07 September 2016 23:34

Independent Educational Evaluations

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I Requested An Independent Evaluation and the District Said “No”: Now What?

One of a parent’s most powerful tools is the right to request an independent educational evaluation at public expense. An independent educational evaluation (or “IEE”) is an evaluation performed by someone other than the local agency responsible for the child’s education. Such evaluations supplement child study team evaluations by providing further information about the child's suspected disabilities and potential need for special education and related services. Parents frequently ask when they can request an IEE, how an IEE can help them advocate for their child, and what to do if a district says “no” to a parent’s request for an IEE.

Starting with the 2016-2017 school year, parents in Texas will be able to request that video cameras be used to monitor their children’s special education classrooms. (Thinkstock)

In what’s believed to be a first, a new law in Texas will require schools to install cameras upon request in classrooms serving students with disabilities.

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