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Children's Rights Litigation

Olga Pribyl

Olga Pribyl loves having a job where she can simultaneously work on behalf of individual children while also engaging in systemic work to tackle problems facing kids across Illinois. As Vice President of the Special Education Clinic and Pro Bono at Equip for Equality, she is responsible for making sure that kids with disabilities across the state can access an education, stay safe, be present, and learn. That is a tall order, and it is both impressive and inspiring to hear about the many things she does each day to carry out this mission.

Olga runs a helpline staffed by volunteers and Equip’s attorneys that provides parents with information and advice about their children’s special education needs and allows Equip to spot systemic issues impacting many kids at once. Through the helpline, which receives over 2,000 calls per year, parents get information so that they can advocate for their children’s rights at school.

Olga directs Equip for Equality’s pro bono program, recruiting lawyers from the community to volunteer on the helpline and represent families at IEP meetings, mediations, and due process hearings across Illinois.

She works with court-involved youth through Equip’s Education Justice Project and is Counsel for a post-litigation sub-class of children with special education needs in Chicago’s Department of Juvenile Justice. Equip also represents youth in the temporary detention centers, and it published a significant report last year that exposed inhumane conditions for vulnerable youth and youth with disabilities—a report that is calling for significant improvements for these youth.

As the protection and advocacy agency for the State of Illinois, Equip seeks input from stakeholders that helps Equip for Equality develop a list of priorities every year to know where to focus when providing self-advocacy support, legal representation, facility monitoring, public policy work, and other legal services. For Olga’s program, these priorities include making sure children are found eligible for special education services, as many schools choose to exclude rather than evaluate children; making sure students are in the least restrictive environment so that they are with typically developing peers; making sure students are safe and free from restraints, seclusion, and abuse; and making sure students receive appropriate behavior supports when facing suspension or expulsion so that students are not pushed out of school.

In addition to all of this, Olga helps Equip for Equality identify and address systemic issues impacting children across the state. A class action filed by Equip two years ago resulted in statewide reforms around language access, thus ensuring that families can participate in their children’s IEP process, even if they do not speak English, by having competent interpreters and translated documents. Equip also worked to reform the law around restraint and seclusion of children with disabilities, a concerning practice that causes both physical and emotional harm. Equip also has advocated for better transition services so that children are ready to live independently and as members of the community when they reach adulthood.

Olga acknowledges that, while it can be frustrating to see the same issues come up repeatedly, what keeps her going is the moments when she knows she’s making a real change for kids so that they can get an education, stay safe, be present, and learn. That, and “our team,” she says “we have a really great team of passionate lawyers and pro bono volunteers who ensure that the law is being followed.”

When describing her work, Olga says, “I think parents are so grateful and we see the impact of our work when kids are able to grow and change after we have intervened to help. I love it.”

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