Business concepts have been known to begin handwritten on napkins, in founders’ basements and over cups of coffee.
The origins of consulting firm Student Advocacy Services started in the classroom. There was a tense incident between a teacher and a young student that resulted in a lengthy suspension, and that’s when Joe Sweeney-Legore stepped in.
The student is autistic and diagnosed as nonverbal. One day in the special education classroom, Sweeney-Legore recalls, the student was surfing the web on a laptop and visiting sites that weren’t pertinent to the day’s lesson. The teacher closed the laptop, and the student swung his arm and hit the teacher in the face. Administrators at the Taneyville school handed down a 10-day suspension.
“The school was not following federal law, and they were pushing this dad around,” Sweeney-Legore says.
He approached the dad: “Want me to fix that for you?”
Mark Smith is the child’s father. He took Sweeney-Legore’s offer and says the suspension was cut in half – “which was what I was wanting,” Smith notes. He credits a consultation with Sweeney-Legore giving him confidence to navigate a meeting with the school principal and superintendent.
“There was a need for this type of service,” Sweeney-Legore says. “I found this was a nationwide problem.”
At its core, Student Advocacy Services deals with disciplinary actions that school administrators might take that violate federal laws protecting special education students.
Sweeney-Legore has some experience as a teacher and is nearing completion of a law degree, and his wife, co-owner Courtney Sweeney-Legore, teaches in special education. They both had spent time in the classroom with Smith’s son, Brock, prior to his incident.
Since launching, Joe Sweeney-Legore says the firm has worked with over 200 families in Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma.
“As we’ve heard, it takes a village to raise a child. In the case of special needs, it may take two villages,” Sweeney-Legore says.
He says most violations fall under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which contains four sections, that “makes available a free appropriate public education to, and ensures special education and related services to, eligible children with disabilities,” according to the U.S. Department of Education. Following the act’s 600-page Part B is where things can go awry in the schools, he says.
“Schools don’t always know the law,” Sweeney-Legore says. “When the parents don’t know the law, that’s when we step in.”
His work is in mediating cases outside of the courts.
Under the IDEA legislation, each special needs student has an individualized education plan outlining the goals that the schools, parents/guardians and students agree to work together to meet.
“It’s overwhelming,” Sweeney-Legore says. “That’s what we do, and hold them accountable. They’re getting federal funds.”
In Brock Smith’s case, Sweeney-Legore makes the point his nonverbal diagnosis should have been factored into the initial disciplinary action.
“They can’t communicate. They can’t tell you no or yes,” he says. “It doesn’t work like that.”
While he notes autism as a growing segment, Student Advocacy Services consults on other disabilities and discriminations, such as LGBTQ matters and Section 504 plans enforced by the U.S. Office of Civil Rights.
“We have equality across the board,” he notes. “Now, we’re talking about civil rights violations, Title 9 or Title 7. There’s a lot of issues that we deal with. The idea is so it doesn’t go any further.”
In the light
The business concept had been brewing for Sweeney-Legore since 2019, as he and his wife saw the writing on the wall while teaching special needs students.
He enrolled in law school to better understand the legal nuances of these special education cases and has two classes left to earn his Juris Doctor from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, a seated/online hybrid program.
Student Advocacy Services has agreements in place to consult with a couple of local lawyers – Michael Horn and Dayrell Scrivner in Branson – and Temple Grandin, a national autism specialist.
Its pricing is three-tiered: by the hour, $100; by the school year, $795; and a sliding scale, case by case.
Sweeney-Legore says first-year revenue was a little under $50,000, and it nearly doubled in the second year. He’s now getting calls from parents in Nebraska and Texas, as well.
Courtney Sweeney-Legore says clients with autism have been on the rise. She teaches in Forsyth, as an autism specialist, and cites greater public awareness and a change in diagnoses in recent years.
The American Psychological Association estimates 1 in 59 children live with autism.
“There are a lot of challenges that come with that diagnosis, and there’s a specialty in ways to work with those students,” she says. “We see a lot of difficulties for those students. It’s such a fascinating disability.”
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