By: Clare Smokowski ’24
This summer, I interned at the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo in the Attorneys for Children (AFC) Unit working on the Education Advocacy Project. I spent the last ten weeks learning New York’s special education laws and advocating for students’ federal right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). I have envisioned myself working as a special education attorney for the last five years, and I am grateful that I finally received the opportunity to work in this capacity.
Under the direction of Chief Attorney Judy Gerber, I worked alongside the AFC’s two education attorneys: Mindy Gullo and Carly Hite. From my first day, Mindy gave me opportunities to work on a few, long-term cases. I met these students face-to-face and walked with them every step of the way. Carly gave me opportunities to serve students from afar by completing several research and writing assignments. I read numerous students’ Individual Education Programs (IEPs) and Behavior Intervention Plans (BIPs); observed Committee on Special Education (CSE) meetings and suspension hearings; and conducted client intakes.
With each passing week, I felt my knowledge, skills, and confidence grow. Some of my favorite moments from this internship include listening to clients tell their own stories; writing independent education evaluation requests (IEEs), a suspension affidavit and appeal letter, a draft state complaint, and memoranda on NYS homeschool and homebound instruction laws; and putting my practice order to use by representing my first client in Erie County Family Court!
The most fulfilling part of this summer was securing a free autism evaluation for the student I represented in family court. I advocated strongly for the evaluation, and even used my own professional connections to make it happen. My passion is serving and advocating for students on the Autism Spectrum. So, I found it especially rewarding to arrange an evaluation for a student who will benefit from the educational services that accompany a formal diagnosis.
Something else I learned from this internship (aside from a myriad of acronyms, some scattered throughout this post) is how pervasive exclusionary discipline is in many school districts. Suspending students—disproportionately black and disabled students— impairs their behavioral, academic, social-emotional, and psychological health. After completing in-depth research on the subject and working to expunge two students’ suspensions, I now know that part of being a special education attorney means advocating for trauma-informed alternatives to exclusionary discipline that address student behavior with understanding, sensitivity, and maximizing positive classroom experiences.
This internship has affirmed my passion for special education advocacy. Thank you to The New York State Court of Appeals, The New York Bar Foundation, the New York State Bar Association, and University at Buffalo School of Law for the honor of being named a Catalyst Public Service Fellow and the financial support that comes with the title. You have given me the gift of working at Legal Aid this summer, and I will incorporate everything I learned into my budding career as a special education attorney.
Name: Clare Smokowski ’24
Name of Fellowship: Catalyst Fellowship
Placement: Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo, Attorneys for Children Unit
Location: Buffalo, NY
One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “Part of being a special education attorney means advocating for trauma-informed alternatives to exclusionary discipline that address student behavior with understanding, sensitivity, and maximizing positive classroom experiences.”