A Lawful Re-entry A school-based SLP was continually called on to update IEP team members about changing federal regulations. One law degree later, she now serves Ohio schools as an official special-education legal expert. In the Limelight
In the Limelight  |   April 01, 2018
A Lawful Re-entry
Author Notes
  • Shelley D. Hutchins is content producer/editor for the ASHA Leader. shutchins@asha.org
    Shelley D. Hutchins is content producer/editor for the ASHA Leader. shutchins@asha.org×
Article Information
School-Based Settings / Regulatory, Legislative & Advocacy / In the Limelight
In the Limelight   |   April 01, 2018
A Lawful Re-entry
The ASHA Leader, April 2018, Vol. 23, 26-27. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.23042018.26
The ASHA Leader, April 2018, Vol. 23, 26-27. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.23042018.26
Name: Bernadette Laughlin, MA, Esq.
Title: Due process coordinator, Office For Exceptional Children, Ohio Department of Education
Hometown: Columbus, Ohio
The principal at the high school where Bernadette Laughlin worked often asked her questions about IEP legal requirements. The suburban Columbus, Ohio, school district where she’d worked as a speech-language pathologist for nearly 30 years was often short on special-education coordinators, so Laughlin was usually the one asked for guidance during IEP meetings.
Laughlin decided she’d better learn the laws regarding special education regulations and IEP requirements.
“It was a time when federal laws were being put in place that changed how we determined eligibility and wrote IEP goals and services,” Laughlin says. “And after not knowing the answers at first, I was always looking up laws and regulations.”
Laughlin eventually became known as the district’s ad hoc special-education legislation “expert.” She enjoyed researching education laws in general. The newfound interest and her district’s need inspired the SLP to go back to school. She originally planned to get her doctorate with a focus on legal issues. But Laughlin discussed program options with several advisors and realized her best option was getting a law degree instead.
Legal ease
Laughlin found a part-time law school program with evening courses at nearby Capital University. She met with the dean, assuming she’d have to explain why an experienced SLP wanted to go to law school. Instead, she was the one surprised when he told her several other SLPs had completed the program—and done exceptionally well.
“I think it’s because SLPs use inductive reasoning to figure out what issues are going on with our students,” Laughlin says, “and lawyers use the same approach to figure out cases.”
The timing was ideal for Laughlin to take on this challenge. She didn’t want to leave her full-time job as an SLP, but her son was grown, which allowed her to focus on work and school. In 2002, she took the LSAT, scored high, was accepted to law school and began working toward her law degree.
Four years later, Laughlin graduated and passed the Ohio bar exam on the first try. She was always active in professional organizations—including the Ohio Speech-Language-Hearing Association—and she’d often joined forces with lobbyists on legislation issues. Connections she made through these groups quickly led to a job opportunity with the Ohio Department of Education.
“One of my colleagues called and said the department of education was creating this new position and they wanted someone with both a speech-language pathology and law background,” Laughlin says. “She told them she happened to know someone and called me!”
The position involved consulting with department staff, education boards, school administrators, educators and families about speech-language pathology laws and regulations. It was essentially a full-time version of what Laughlin occasionally did for her school district. As the first person to do the job, Laughlin devised the parameters of her role and responsibilities.
“It was an interesting position,” she says. “I oversaw speech-language services statewide, answered a lot of questions about caseloads—even leading a caseload ratio project—and discussed issues with other consultants hired for similar roles.”
Much of Laughlin’s focus involved figuring out exactly how SLPs in schools needed to update their practices to meet changing federal regulations. She alleviated a lot of uncertainty from school-based SLPs about laws pertaining to writing compliant IEPs, what qualified students for evaluation and treatment, ethical questions about treating students, and clarification on exactly what the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) required in terms of special education.
“IDEA and ethics for SLPs sometimes offered conflicting guidelines,” Laughlin says. “This led to a lot of confusion and questions from SLPs. I addressed all different kinds of questions about special-education law compliance issues.”
In 2014, Laughlin moved into the Ohio Department of Education’s due process division. This entails a more formal version of her compliance-resolution work. When parents or caregivers feel their school isn’t meeting the needs of their child as outlined by IDEA, she coordinates the due process. She describes it as more adversarial, similar to a court hearing. Laughlin works with the school districts and the attorneys filing on behalf of the families, and assigns a hearing officer to the cases.

“SLPs use inductive reasoning to figure out what issues are going on with our students, and lawyers use the same approach to figure out cases.”

Final verdict
Laughlin truly enjoys her work guiding SLPs, schools and families as they navigate complex and constantly changing legal regulations surrounding special education. Many of the skills she honed when providing speech-language pathology services for nearly 30 years also come into play.
“This was a bit of a surprise to me,” Laughlin says, “but having a strong background of keeping detailed records helps me guide others in these resolutions or answering questions.”
Writing things down can solve many complaints, according to Laughlin. When parents call Laughlin’s office, they often feel like the school isn’t addressing concerns about their child. And when Laughlin contacts the school, the specialists or administrators frequently express surprise the parent complained.
Laughlin commonly recommends parents write everything down—if they don’t already. Even if they prefer talking to school administrators in person, they should follow up with an email detailing their concerns and exactly what actions they want the school to take. Documentation isn’t always the issue, but the former SLP finds her habit of exactly recording exchanges helps resolve complaints.
Advising specialists other than SLPs also allows Laughlin to tap into her data-collection expertise.
“In compliance investigations, documentation is crucial in proving progress using evidence-based practices,” says Laughlin. “I know they’re providing the services, but tracking progress has been a learning curve for some specialists. So some case resolutions involve training educators on data collection.”
In general, school-based SLPs learn to manage time efficiently, organize materials, deal with a range of personalities and manage conflicts—all while keeping everyone on their side, Laughlin adds with a chuckle. Those skills remain invaluable as a lawyer.
Another experience as an SLP also ended up being important preparation for Laughlin’s legal career. Just before getting her job with the department of education, Laughlin worked for eight years in a high school where many people were resistant to integrating students with IEPs into the general education classrooms.
“That was really valuable training,” Laughlin says, “on how to get people to see my perspective.”
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April 2018
Volume 23, Issue 4