Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tireless advocate for educational rights of disabled children, Dee Alpert, dies

From the Wall Street Journal:

Dee Alpert, a bespectacled, muckraking lawyer who helped guide parents and others through the often-murky corridors of special education, died last week at age 65. Her family said the cause of death was related to a cerebral aneurysm.

Within the city’s education world, Ms. Alpert was something of an unofficial inspector general. She had a rare grasp of the arcana of school regulations, audits and budgets, and volunteered her services to parents and advocates.

She probed the city’s methods for determining drop-out rates of students and detailed the roadblocks in front of parents who seek information about the progress of their disabled children.. She scoured financial statements of school districts, such as Roosevelt on Long Island, blowing the whistle on risky borrowing schemes.

In blasts of thousands of words, she posted her findings on her personal website, Special Education Muckraker, which then circulated around the parent-advocacy arena. Her style had a touch of the conspiratorial, but commanded the attention of major policy experts, like Diane Ravitch, who praised Ms. Alpert for her “fierce integrity” and “keen intellect.”

She wrote about how abuse cases are treated differently when a victim is a special education student. One of Ms. Alpert’s most high-profile exposes was titled “Abu Ghraib on the Hudson,” in which she untangled proposed state regulations for allowing schools to lock students with disabilities inside “seclusion rooms.” State officials said they wanted to help schools better manage behavioral problems. But Ms. Alpert pointed to loopholes that she said opened the door to corporal punishment. Her piece found its way to the inboxes of advocates in other states and stirred more national opposition to such policies.

Among teetering stacks of audits and financial reports, clouds of cigarette smoke, pots of Zabar’s coffee and two long-haired cats named Squiggles and Miggles, Ms. Alpert toiled alone in her musty Upper West Side apartment. She had consulting clients, but in her later years she did most of her work free.

In the 1970s, she worked as an employment compliance attorney for the National Organization for Women. She gave scathing assessments of the handling of discrimination complaints by corporations and governments. The Wall Street Journal in 1978 quoted her on the front page dissenting opinion about the changes resulting from AT&T’s landmark agreement to protect the civil rights of its employees.”Sexism is still part of the company,” she said.

“She was a crusader. She was valiant and tireless. She was always willing to step in and help,” said Maryann Lombardi, a founder of Advocacy Solutions, a Connecticut-based company that advises the parents of special-education students. “And she absolutely, almost to a fault, told the truth. When she saw things that weren’t right and corrupt, she said so.”

Ms. Lombardi turned to Ms. Alpert when her complaints about the credentials of an autism specialist at the Norwalk School district got ignored. Ms. Alpert put her in touch with school investigators, who later would prosecute and convict the specialist, Stacy Lore, for fraud.

Ms. Lombardi posted a thank-you note online after the sentencing in October. “When I was simply railing about the fact that no one was really doing anything about these crimes Dee came forward and contacted the Inspector General’s office which started the ball rolling with an investigation which is finally yielding some fruit,” she wrote.