Thoughts of Our Departed Friend, Larry Kotin

by Robert K. Crabtree, Esq.

I write with sadness at the passing of my friend and colleague Larry Kotin on May 12 at the age of 81, and also with deep gratitude for our personal and working relationship of more than 52 years.

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I met Larry in 1970 when he worked with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI). I was in my first year as Research Director for the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education. Larry came by with a proposal to provide for community control of schools within urban districts – a mechanism by which residents could assume some share of governance over their local schools.  Though we talked a few members into signing on, the legislation quickly foundered on the rocks of complexity, squabbles over power-sharing in school districts, and cost. 

But the relationship that began with that undertaking was just the beginning!  Larry’s purposeful enthusiasm and sense of mission and his facility with the language of law and policy struck quite a responsive chord in me that led to a collaboration we proceeded to enjoy for more than fifty years. That working relationship was marked throughout by Larry’s deep kindness, sharp creativity, and enduring commitment to finding ways to direct governmental resources toward effectively serving the needs of underserved populations. 

Chief among the products of our early collaboration was the signing of Chapter 766 into law by Governor Frank Sargent on July 17, 1972 – 50 years ago. Working through MLRI, Larry had been assigned to the Massachusetts Advisory Council on Education (MACE). His mission was to analyze the patchwork of statutes then in effect concerning special education in the Commonwealth and to design model legislation to reform that deeply flawed system. Larry’s proposed statutory models served as the proto-drafts for an entire new structure which aimed to ensure that the teaching and supports that a child receives would be based on individualized expert evaluation of the child’s particular needs and potential and would be designed according to the best current pedagogical science. More, in a turn that was much in keeping with the “power to the people” spirit of those years, Larry’s drafts sought to establish a powerful set of parental rights: (1) to participate throughout the evaluation, planning, and implementation of special education services; (2) to secure publicly funded second opinions by independent experts when parents did not agree with the school’s own evaluations; and (3) to appeal a school system’s actions or failures to act to independent adjudicators (BSEA hearing officers) when necessary.   

At the same time, my boss, Rep. Mike Daly of Brighton, who was sitting as a member of the Task Force on Children Out of School (now the Massachusetts Advocates for Children), assigned me to research special education reform options from the MACE study and other resources around the country and to piece together a draft proposal to rebuild from the ground up the Commonwealth’s system for educating and supporting children with disabling conditions. The resulting draft legislation was filed by Rep. Daly with Speaker David Bartley. After an extensive vetting involving numerous meetings with stakeholders across the Commonwealth and the adoption of a number of key amendments (including a “purpose” section that I recall drafting on the floor of my apartment at the time!), it was signed to become Chapter 766. That statute changed lives not only in Massachusetts but across the nation, as it became the model for the federal special education law now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The core of Larry’s ideas survived the meat-grinder of the legislative process intact, and the changes that grew out of the legislative process leading to enactment greatly strengthened the resulting statute. In that process, as his original work was altered amendment by amendment, Larry and I conferred countless times with each other and with other key advocates, especially including Speaker Bartley’s staff member Connie Kaufman and, leading the charge for parent advocacy groups, Martha Ziegler, who became the founder of the Federation for Children with Special Needs, and equally eloquent and passionate members of the Task Force, Larry Brown and Hubie Jones. Throughout this process Larry put ego aside and never second-guessed the changes that had to be made to satisfy the competing demands of the initiative’s many stakeholders in order for the bill to reach the Governor’s desk. As he sometimes observed during lunchroom conversations over current affairs, the perfect is too often the enemy of the good. In the case of Chapter 766 the great good wrought by its robust overhaul of special education law was certainly worth the price of a few concessions.

Skipping ahead to 1980, Larry found me working at a large corporate law firm and invited me to lunch on the Boston Common one day to discuss an idea he had for creating a new general practice law firm. His vision was that it would not be a “boutique” serving only the needs of families with children or adults struggling with disabilities but would provide quality legal services of all kinds – real estate, corporate, employment, estate planning, intellectual property, and so forth.  The idea was brilliant, as it turned out. As we have found over some 41-plus years as Kotin, Crabtree & Strong, LLP, maintaining a core practice in special education and disability law has provided a great cross-fertilization of legal skills and, frankly, business appeal that has served our clients and our attorneys extremely well. I credit Larry with the amazing foresight to imagine this business model could work. Perhaps his young years helping his dad delivering milk and collecting bills in upstate New York seeded a unique array of skills and interests in Larry that helped him marry his commitment to education reform and equal justice to a practical business sense that was key to our firm’s success.

As an advocate, Larry modeled kindness, humor, and sharp intelligence in the service of our clients. With adversaries, clients, expert witnesses, and fellow advocates alike, he was unfailingly positive, respectful, and creative in the search for solutions to our clients’ needs. He also brought a quirky sense of humor to the work that often enabled people in difficult conversations to move to solutions. 

Larry had a charming, wry, and self-effacing sense of humor. He loved to tell of receiving a report card in elementary school on which the teacher wrote “Lawrence tries hard!” He frequently offered diagnoses, albeit unlicensed – of himself, of his colleagues … of anyone, really, with whatever arm-chair psychiatric label he thought fit the subject – tongue in cheek, of course. Working with law students and young attorneys, he insisted, also tongue-in-cheek we supposed, that one was not sufficiently committed to the work of an attorney if s/he was not waking at three in the morning to worry about a case. With all that, he put family above all other priorities and guarded his time with them and in pursuit of activities to refresh his soul (he tried the trombone, he danced, he ice-skated, he developed a stand-up comedy routine …). In that light, he sometimes reminded his colleagues, as we aged, of Mark Twain’s observation that “the graveyards are full of indispensable people.”

Even at this length, I have only touched the surface of our friend’s many ways of making this a better world. He did – always – “try hard” … and by God, he succeeded. 

With love and gratitude, I wish him rest and peace.

Bob

Robert K. Crabtree is of counsel within the Special Education & Disability Rights practice group at Kotin, Crabtree & Strong, LLP in Boston, Massachusetts.  He is a founding member of the firm.

Public Toxins and the IDEA: In Quest of an Accountable Economy and a Fully Funded IDEA

In a recently published article for Newsline, a publication of the Federation for Children with Special Needs, Bob Crabtree reflects on the slow process between the time that a substance is recognized as toxic to children and the time that legislatures act (if they act at all) to regulate its use, and the resulting harm to children.

In the article, Public Toxins and the IDEA: In Quest of an Accountable Economy and a Fully Funded IDEA, Mr. Crabtree discusses the implications of this regulatory failure for disability advocacy, with emphasis on the need for a robust independent regulatory system to determine the possible neurodevelopmental effect of materials before those materials are allowed in the marketplace. In addition, Mr. Crabtree argues that Congress must fully fund IDEA to provide adequate support to all children with disabilities, including those children whose disabilities are caused or amplified by harmful products in the marketplace.

(Readers are encouraged to return to this site with comments if they are so moved, as the Federation’s site does not include that option.)

New First Circuit Opinion Elucidates Exhaustion Requirement for School-Related Claims Under Sections 504 and 1983

The First Circuit has recently clarified the exhaustion requirements for school-related Section 504 and Section 1983 claims in light of Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Schs., 137 S. Ct. 743 (2017).  In Doucette v. Georgetown Public Schools, #18-1160 (1st Cir. Aug. 26, 2019), a divided panel reversed a District Court decision that dismissed parents’ Section 504 and Section 1983 claims for failure to exhaust IDEA’s administrative process. Continue reading

Selective Service Registration for Men with Disabilities

Recently, Attorneys from the Special Education and Disability Rights practice group and the Estate Planning and Estate and Trust Administration practice group at Kotin, Crabtree & Strong, LLP, attended the annual conference for the Federation for Children with Special Needs.  During the conference, one parent approached us and asked whether her son, who is eighteen years old and has significant disabilities, really needed to register for the Selective Service.  It was an intriguing question, one that we had not heard before, and so we looked into it. Continue reading

Endrew F. v. Douglas County and its Impact on Special Education Law

The Boston Bar Journal recently published an article by Dan Heffernan regarding the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Endrew F. and its impact here in Massachusetts.  Please take a look!

Dan Heffernan is a partner in the Special Education & Disability Rights practice group at Kotin, Crabtree & Strong, LLP in Boston, Massachusetts.

Act Now or We May Lose Mass Health Funding for Special Needs Students

While we don’t usually pass along notices issued by others, we think that the alert below from the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (“COPAA”) deserves your immediate attention and action.  We urge our readers to let their concerns be heard, as federal legislators appear to be acting behind closed doors to reduce Medicaid funding drastically in whatever provisions will be proposed to replace the Affordable Care Act.  Continue reading

A Bit of Advocacy History

Take a moment, if you can, to check out an April 1975 letter from Harvey Liebergott, then with the Bureau of Information for the Handicapped in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, notifying Martha Ziegler forty years ago this week of a grant of around $25, 000 to fund a pilot program under which the nascent Federation for Children with Special Needs was to play a key role in the development of systems to support regional information and referral centers throughout the country.  He estimated that a fully operational system of regional information and referral centers would cost on the order of ten million dollars – an amount that he could see “no chance of ever getting” – and he urged Martha to “think of the project realistically as a model that could be utilized nationwide to solve the most immediate problems of handicapped children with limited resources, and not as an ideal for solving all of the information and referral needs of parents in your particular state.”

Needless to say, the Federation took that $25,000, ran with it and became the gold standard of parent training and support agencies, then and now.

Rich Robison, the Director of the Federation, shared this wonderful bit of advocacy history this week.  He himself celebrated his 18th anniversary as the Federation’s Director yesterday, and we thank and congratulate him for all the tremendous work he has done through all those years – marked as they have been by enormous fiscal and political challenges – to sustain and expand the Federation’s role as a powerful voice and indispensible resource in the world of special education training and advocacy.

Taking Para-Sports to the Limit

Endless Abilities is an inspiring feature documentary film which illustrates the level of expertise of para-athletes across the country in a variety of sports. In 2012, after Zack Bastian was rendered paraplegic in a dirt bike accident, he and his three best friends drove across the country in search of individuals with physical disabilities who were doing amazing things in adaptive sports. This included rock climbing with athletes who were blind, riding waves with surfers with paralysis, and swimming with an athlete with muscular dystrophy. Continue reading