Pepperdine People Magazine
Pepperdine People Magazine Fall 2005
An Advocate for Opportunity: Richard Peterson champions the legal rights of the developmentally disabled.
By Jerry Derloshon
Putting on a cap and gown and walking with friends at a high school graduation is a moment most people remember all their lives. For immigrants to the United States, having the first family member celebrate the occasion evokes as much, or even more emotion.
Grecia Cabrera, an 18-year old who came to the U.S. from Mexico City when she was a month old, viewed graduating with her high school friends as the culmination of a cherished dream. Her parents, Juan and Guadalupe, could not have been more proud.
But, there was a glitch in their plans. It looked like Grecia's dream was not to be realized.
Grecia is among those who suffer from epilepsy and seizure disorder, an acquired disability that made progressing in high school nearly impossible, even in a special education environment. As a result, Grecia was to receive a certificate of completion at the conclusion of her senior year instead of a diploma, which school officials said prevented her from participating in graduation ceremonies. The family was crushed. They needed an advocate.
They found one in a man named Richard M. Peterson.
The Cabrera family's case is the kind that makes Peterson eager to rise in the morning. After looking into the matter, one phone call from Peterson to district officials resulted in Grecia participating in graduation as an "extracurricular activity," not as an academic exercise. And everyone was happy.
There was more at stake with Grecia's case than participating in graduation. Because she wanted to improve her reading and writing, and to grow academically, she needed to radically adjust the transition program that the school district placed her in. The district's transition program, designed to prepare Grecia for employment and independent living, dealt with basic life skills and not academics, and the district's position was that she did not have the cognitive ability to take on more academically challenging work. Peterson recalled, "Grecia was really frustrated. She said her dream was to be a preschool aide or teacher. But the district did not see that potential in her."
Grecia Cabrera poses with her
parents Guadalupe and Juan.
Guadalupe presentsented Richard
Peterson with a blank check in
gratitude for the clinic's work.
Peterson empowered Grecia's parents to work with the local community college and its disability services office. And he managed to get her enrolled in a remedial reading class. Grecia got a B in the class and was successful beyond everyone's expectations —except her own and her parents'. Following her success, Peterson helped arrange the district's approval of formally incorporating the community college experience into Grecia's transition program. Finally, Peterson and the Cabreras negotiated with the district to pay for obtaining a neuropsychological evaluation of Grecia, and the evaluation supported the idea of integrating the academics into her transition plan as well.
Guadalupe said that when she first met Peterson, she felt that he was the first one who ever truly understood Grecia. "He asked us and Grecia questions nobody had ever asked before, about what would be the perfect program for her. Nobody had asked that before, not even me." Guadalupe said she noticed a change in the staff at the district when Peterson got involved. "They saw that we weren't alone anymore."
Peterson explained, "Public education is a civil rights issue. The first case that made education a civil rights issue was the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education. Special education is about the 'right to be included' and concerns itself with 'the dignity of the individual.' When it's presented like that, there's little to take issue with. Grecia's right to be included was easily resolved."
The family was so moved by all that Peterson and his students achieved for Grecia, that Guadalupe at one point handed Peterson a blank check and urged him to take it, with tears in her eyes, and urged him to write any amount on the check that he wanted. He tried to refuse the offer but she was insistent that he accept it. He gave in, thanked her and later wrote "void" on it.
Peterson launched Pepperdine's advocacy clinic with the Regional Center of Orange County (RCOC), an organization serving about 13,000 developmentally disabled people. Based in Santa Ana, RCOC helps individuals and families deal with the myriad complexities that accompany cerebral palsy, autism, epilepsy, mental retardation, and other major disability cases.
Orange County and 21 other regional centers throughout California owe their existence to a statute called the Lanterman Act, which sets forth how the developmentally disabled can receive much-needed services. Centers don't provide the services, but they coordinate them through various vendors. That's where Peterson and Pepperdine come in.
At any one time, Peterson and his students are involved in 50 or so cases, acting as a resource for the families of the developmentally disabled, and ensuring that they receive the benefits that they're entitled to under the act. Available benefits include early intervention, medical care, respite for parents, care during the day, special programs in school, and employment.
The idea behind the Lanterman Act is to help empower people with developmental disabilities to experience self-determination in the form of independent living and self-sufficiency.
Peterson first got involved in developmental disabilities in the mid-1990s. "I was a practicing attorney, and I represented a family who had a child in a constant vegetative state. The mother had earned her master's degree and went to work at the RCOC, motivated by her experiences with her daughter and other families she met. She asked me to serve on the RCOC board and that was it," recalled Peterson.
At the time, Peterson was getting his master's degree in dispute resolution at Pepperdine and quickly saw that his skills could be put to good use working closely with and through RCOC. "I met many families who came in so devastated, and they didn't know where to turn. These families didn't have advocates to help them. That's what tugged on my heartstrings."
A few years passed as Peterson served RCOC as its president. Then he began focusing his efforts on establishing a special education advocacy clinic. "There is a great need," noted Peterson, "to teach people knowledge of the law and their rights and responsibilities. Secondly, there's a great need to teach them skills to negotiate, to interact, and communicate. Thirdly, people need to know how to build collaborative relationships so they can have productive relationships with the educational agencies. That's what we help with."
Peterson's goal was to create a non-adversarial clinic. "We envisioned a clinic that would focus on building relationships. We would try to be collaborative and not just legalistic."
Much of Peterson's inspiration came from Pepperdine law professor L. Randolph "Randy" Lowry, founding director of Pepperdine's Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution, the number one such program in the nation. In the fall of 2002, the Pepperdine Special Education Advocacy Clinic opened. Peterson estimates there are approximately 5,000 children who are potential clinic beneficiaries.
With a 50-family caseload and about 10 or 11 Pepperdine students to help him, Peterson is the answer to many peoples' prayers. When he's not actively involved in casework, the full-time faculty member teaches special education and disability law. Lately Peterson has thrust himself into handling cases involving deaf students. One, a Santa Monica eighth-grader, was nearly suicidal when Peterson began working with the young man and his parents.
Their efforts resulted in the student being placed in one of the nation's top schools for the deaf, located in Irvine, California. "The young man blossomed," beamed Peterson. "He starts University High in Irvine this fall."
A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Peterson sees the Christian mission of Pepperdine as a perfect fit for how he chooses to live his life. "When we go in to help a family or to work with the educational community, we want to emulate the Christian values of the University," noted Peterson. "I expect our students and myself to act with civility and with Christian values, even when things get tough. We want to build relationships, not create barriers and animosity."
Many of Peterson's students, especially those who take an active role in the advocacy clinic, adopt his exuberance.
One of Dr. Peterson's
students, Christian Perala
helped Grecia earn the right
to walk at her graduation.
Following his first year of law school, Christian Perala questioned whether the legal profession was right for him. He recalled, "I enrolled in Professor Peterson's Law and the Disabled class. All of a sudden, my legal experience drastically changed. I was infected. I consumed disability-related material and found myself in the professor's office every other day discussing what I had read or thought. That semester I received the highest grade in that class and used that as a springboard to the Special Education Advocacy Clinic the following semester.
"In the Special Education Advocacy Clinic, my experience once again radically changed. Instead of theory and black-letter law, I got extensive, real-world experience and was actually able to help people."
Rather than take a summer job, Perala offered to continue to work with Peterson on a volunteer basis, to gain ever more firsthand experience in the field.
Peterson added, "Special education law is not for everybody. But it's incredible to see how many come to see this as their calling."
Peterson is the founding director of Pepperdine University's Special Education Advocacy Clinic in Orange County, California. And, as an assistant professor at Pepperdine's School of Law, he shares his passion with his students who, in many cases, find special education advocacy is the most meaningful work they've ever done in their lives.