Commentary

The Army’s Legal Assistance attorneys can help with special education law

The Army’s Legal Assistance Program, which I oversee, has made incredible strides over the last year to ensure we are meeting the needs of our People First priority, especially our Exceptional Family Member clients. I am pleased to report that we have taken action on the third point Chaplain Bailey highlighted in his commentary last week.

Over the course of the last year, we have trained 37 legal assistance professionals from installations across the world through an intensive 40-hour legal clinic hosted by the William and Mary School of Law. Not only that, we were joined by our colleagues from all the other services — ensuring we have attorneys across the globe and across the services poised to help these clients.

Recognizing that we need all our attorneys proficient in this complex and nuanced area of the law, the Office of the Judge Advocate General (OTJAG) worked with the American Bar Association (ABA) to develop an additional training on the basics of education law, in a virtual, on-demand format. All our attorneys have access to this training and are standing by to provide basic legal counseling in special education law to their client populations. Not only that, we have partnered with the ABA to enhance their network of volunteer special education attorneys. These attorneys provide pro bono (free) legal assistance to eligible clients when the case is too complex for our attorneys to handle.

At the beginning of 2021, special education law became a required area of assistance in our Army Legal Assistance program. Just as clients can go to their local legal assistance office expecting help with our traditional services like estate planning, taxes, and consumer law, they can now expect assistance with special education law. Clients should expect to receive basic legal counseling in the area of special education law so they have a trusted adviser on their side. Legal Assistance attorneys can guide clients through the framework of federal laws that guarantee children access to free and appropriate education, but clients should be aware additional services like in-person representation may not be available at every installation. Clients can find their nearest legal assistance office here: https://legalassistance.law.af.mil/

We still have work to do — primarily in the area of outreach — these new services do little good if clients don’t know they exist. I was pleased to read Chaplain Bailey’s article to see this problem highlighted, but it made me realize we are only half there if soldiers like Chaplain Bailey remain unaware that the service is available. Chaplain Bailey and I are working together to tackle this important need so we can now work together on the next step — ensuring our EFMP families are aware of this new service.

Chaplain (Col) Geoffrey Bailey’s take:

As both an EFMP family and a chaplain, I am excited to learn about this program and its potential for assisting our soldiers and their families as they navigate educational concerns. The emphasis and training the Judge Advocate General Corps is placing through investment and communication on this area is critical to placing People First. I look forward to working to spread awareness of this program as well as learning about its effectiveness from both families and leaders as they leverage this new capability. As Melissa Halsey highlighted above, awareness of a new program is the first step. Gathering information on the program’s effectiveness is a continual and necessary step to grow, improve, or modify the program to ensure it meets the needs of the population we have the collaborative privilege of serving.

Melissa Halsey is chief of the Legal Assistance Policy Division of the Office of the Judge Advocate General.

Chaplain (Col.) Geoff Bailey is a U.S. Army War College student with multiple combat tours and enterprise-wide experience from squad level to the Pentagon’s halls. He is also the proud parent of an EFMP-enrolled dependent and has almost 30 years’ service as an enlisted soldier and chaplain.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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