Executive director with polio uses impact litigation and relating to students when attaining systemic education reform.
Jim Comstock-Galagan has been practicing law for 32 years. During that time he has worked in public interest law and has made sure to be a well-rounded attorney. Not only does he stay up-to-date on legal developments, but Jim studies sociological and educational trends to better serve others. Yet Jim also realizes that sometimes having the law or academia on your side is not enough—which is why he tries to have his opponents relate to the plight of his clients in order to get effective change.
Jim contracted polio when he was 18 months old and currently uses leg braces, crutches, and a power scooter. He is a graduate of Tulane School of Law. His seasoned legal career includes past positions as executive director of Advocacy, Inc. (Texas’ protection and advocacy agency), legal director of Advocacy Center (Louisiana’s protection and advocacy center), and staff attorney for the Louisiana Center for the Public Interest. He has won the President’s Award from the State Bar of Texas and the Disability Rights Activist Award from ADAPT of Texas. He now directs the Southern Disability Law Center where he pursues systemic litigation and advocacy under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
For the past 9 years Jim and his organization, along with assistance from the State Bar of Texas and in collaboration with the Southern Poverty Law Center, have engaged in large-scale litigation against school districts. He has also made use of a new tool, systemic IDEA administrative complaints filed with state education agencies. Most of these cases have resulted in successful settlement agreements where the needs of students with behavioral challenges—usually due to disabilities—are addressed through the hiring of independent experts in Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports as well as the implementation of various objective compliance requirements. Jim has found that the culture within schools has changed dramatically during his career and today a far more narrow range of behavior is viewed as acceptable. “Over the past two decades, schools and school districts have adopted zero-tolerance policies for minor student behaviors. Now kids are rarely taught proper behavior in school and are often simply placed in the ‘school to prison pipeline’ via the use of school suspensions when they act out,” he stated, “This unfortunate situation does not bode well for children with emotional and behavioral related disabilities, especially when under the law these children need and have a right to accommodations in the schools.”
Besides using IDEA to attain these accommodations, Jim studies sociological, psychological and pedagogical trends to understand what is happening in the school districts. He then keeps this information in mind when talking with his opposition. “Sometimes the law will get you to the bargaining table, but if you really want change, you need to alter attitudes and have others personally identify with the problem and be in the shoes of your client,” he noted, “For example, I recently spoke with the principal of a school who was African American and born and raised in the south. When I explained to him how the denial of rights for students with disabilities is too often due to their status—much like the denial of rights for African American students prior to the 1960s—he saw the correlation and realized that students with disabilities need access and accommodations in school in order to be given an equal and quality education.”