|Home > News> "Champion of special-ed children doing good, having more fun" by Bill Lohmann, Richmond Times-Dispatch (August 3, 2003)|
BY BILL LOHMANN WITH PHOTOS BY BOB BROWN
Ten years ago, Pete Wright stood at the pinnacle of the legal profession.
Now, he stands at the end of the road.
And he can't imagine a better place to be.
Because the end of this road comes with a hammock, a picnic table and a couple of chairs, the perfect perches from which to admire the Chesapeake Bay stretching out before them, as well as the ospreys, blue herons and occasional bald eagles that soar overhead.
This is Pete and Pam Wright's slice of paradise: five newly purchased acres of pines, sand and fill dirt on the edge of Stingray Point in Deltaville.
The road? Route 33, which comes all the way across Virginia and dead-ends into the bay a short sunrise stroll from what next summer, the Wrights hope, will be their new home. Construction begins soon.
"It's like a dream come true for us," said Pete.
Of course, this makes it sound as if Pete Wright is a suntanned has-been, which couldn't be further from the truth. In some ways, Wright, at age 57, is just getting started.
It was 10 years ago this October that Wright, a Richmond attorney with butterflies and a solid case, stood before the U.S. Supreme Court and argued on behalf of a South Carolina special-education student whose family had demanded - and been denied - what they deemed appropriate educational services from the local public schools. The parents sent their daughter to a private school, where the girl thrived and graduated, and wanted the public school system to reimburse them for the private school tuition. The school system balked. The parents sued and won. They won again, with Wright representing them, in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
And then the U.S. Supreme Court, a month after Wright's stomach-churning appearance, issued a unanimous opinion in the family's favor.
Just last month, The New York Times, in an editorial, called Wright "a warrior for children."
Others hold similar opinions.
"Special-needs children don't vote," said Ronald B. David, a Richmond pediatric neurologist. "Pete - and we have to include Pam -are almost single-handedly the great equalizers in championing the cause of these children."
of which is not bad for a man who struggled through school, like the
kids he helps, with
. . .
Wright, who spent his childhood in Washington, grew up in the 1950s, an era when a child in a wheelchair could legally be considered a fire hazard at school. Special-education services were not generally available and certainly were not legally required.
special needs were rarely met, which Wright and his family discovered
Fact is, he had great difficult reading and writing in elementary school. He transposed letters and had trouble paying attention. He was hyperactive and still is. He eventually was diagnosed as having strephosymbolia and word blindness - labels that today, almost 50 years later, stand for dyslexia, attention deficit disorder and other learning disabilities.
Extensive tutoring, using a multisensory approach to language learning that is now known as the Orton-Gillingham method, improved his reading, writing and mathematics dramatically. Participation in football and other sports raised his self-respect. But his grades never distinguished him as college material. He left District of Columbia public schools after the 11th grade with a D average and transferred to a small, rigorous Quaker boarding school in Rhode Island. In a fresh environment with teachers who knew how to work with a kid with dyslexia, he repeated his junior year, excelled during his senior year and was admitted to Randolph-Macon College in Ashland.
After graduating in 1968 from Randolph-Macon with a degree in psychology, he worked for several years in juvenile training schools, as a houseparent and counselor, and later as a juvenile probation officer. He went to night school, taking graduate psychology classes at Virginia Commonwealth University, fully intending to become a psychologist.
While working as a probation officer, he became involved with the Orton Dyslexia Society and the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities. Many of the young people he worked with in training schools and juvenile courts had undiagnosed learning disabilities. He used educational remediation to reduce their delinquent behavior and spoke at national conferences about the relationship between learning disabilities and juvenile delinquency.
He shifted career gears and enrolled in the University of Richmond's T.C. Williams School of Law and graduated in 1977. He immediately began handling special-education litigation, representing parents who believed their local schools were not providing an appropriate education for their children under the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, which had been signed by President Ford in 1975. (Its legal successor, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA, is in the news now as Congress battles over its reauthorization.)
Wright was making a name for himself in the field. He was asked to speak at a number of conferences on dyslexia in the mid-1980s. The parents of Shannon Carter, the South Carolina girl he would eventually represent before the Supreme Court, were in the audience at a conference in 1985. He ran into the Carters again in 1991 when he spoke at a conference in South Carolina. By that time, the Carters had won at the district court level and were preparing for the appeals process. They asked Wright to join their legal team. Wright took over the case when the Carters' attorney left for another job.
began focusing his practice solely on special-education law.
They consult nationally and occasionally overseas. They also travel around the United States, leading training seminars and "boot camp" conferences for parents, health-care providers, attorneys and even public school administrators. The Wrights' next conference is later this month in Wichita, Kan. Some months, the Wrights are on the road more than they are in Deltaville.
Which is why Pete has cut back on his caseload, preferring instead to arm others for battle. Most parents who come to him for help don't need a lawyer; they just need information, guidance and confidence, Wright said. In fact, he preaches conciliation and out-of-court mediation, telling parents and advocates that in many cases they can be successful by being straightforward, persuasive and willing to negotiate without resorting to being combative.
But he also says, "The best way to avoid trial and litigation is to prepare for trial and litigation."
Wright relishes his less-frequent courtroom opportunities. Take a fast-talking, hyperactive, former football player with a photographic memory and a passion for his work and the challenge is formidable. He's a little on the relentless side.
Kathleen S. Mehfoud, a partner with the Richmond firm of Reed Smith and counsel of school boards around the state, is a longtime opponent.
"Pete and I have mutual respect for each other," said Mehfoud, who has been battling Wright in court for about 25 years. "Obviously Pete and I don't agree on interpretations of the law in a lot of instances, but that doesn't mean we still don't have respect for each other."
Special education is a difficult issue. Parents, naturally, want the best for their children. Public schools, on the other hand, must attempt to educate everyone who comes to them. Families view special education emotionally; schools eye it economically. Both sides generally want to do right by the child, but right is covered by a big tent. That's where conflicts arise. Strict laws and limited funds have made special education a painful tug of war.
All of which raises the question: Is Pete Wright the enemy of public school systems?
"I believe some of my clients become concerned when they learn he's involved in a case, and they certainly have concerns about him cross-examining them," Mehfoud said. "But I don't think that would cause them to perceive him as an enemy."
Wright actually is a nice guy. Too nice, in the eyes of some. Pam Wright said they've heard a few complaints that they're approach is too conciliatory. "But nice won't work here," they say.
Pam, a psychotherapist by profession who operates the newsletter and Web site, disagrees.
"Nice," she said, "works everywhere."
Mehfoud has a weekend place in Deltaville. She ran into Wright recently when she paid a visit to a local community trash receptacle.
"He saw me," she said with a laugh, "and dumped my trash for me."
. . .
Examine Wright's Web site, check out his heavy travel schedule and listen as people in the special-ed field speak of him in almost reverent tones. Then go to Deltaville with expectations of palatial offices - and pull up to an unpretentious blue duplex, just past Hurds Hardware.
Welcome to Wrightslaw and Harbor House Law Press, the publishing side of the operation. Expecting a big staff? Try a party of four. Pete, Pam and two assistants.
High technology is a wonderful thing.
His faith in computers is nothing new. Wright relied on computers in his law office in the early 1980s. He loves gadgets. He keeps an elaborate schedule on his laptop - "I'm a compulsive list-maker," he says - and a maniacally fast typist, typing having helped solve his writing problems. He uses a Palm Pilot for work matters, as well as the local tide chart. A global positioning system contraption, which charts his every move and can map his next one, swings by a strap from the rear-view mirror of his Mazda Miata.
Pete's office is nothing fancy. A portrait of Wright arguing before the Supreme Court hangs on one wall. On the opposite wall is a print of the Stingray Point light. A weightlifting bench resides in the hall outside his door. He keeps all of his files on his laptop computer. He keeps old newspaper clippings in a plastic grocery bag.
He will wear a tie to the office if he has new clients coming for a consultation and, of course, to court. Otherwise, since a lot of his work is done by phone or computer, his wardrobe is likely to be T-shirt, shorts and sandals. He has no tan line on his wrist because he doesn't wear a watch.
Time isn't quite as important as, say, the wind.
Because in Deltaville, one of Wright's laws is this: Any excuse to take off and go sailing is a good one.
"This is just a community of good people," said Wright, waving to everyone he passed as he cruised around town, top down, in his Miata. "Down here, you know everybody."
And everybody knows Wright. Can't miss him with his license plate: 510 US 7. That's the case number of his Supreme Court victory.
. . .
Deltaville is a small community 60 miles east of Richmond on the Middle Peninsula, where the Rappahannock and Piankatank rivers flow into the bay. A lot of the homes are summer cottages for people who spend most of their lives in Richmond or Northern Virginia or other urban area. They show up on Friday evening and bail out on Sunday afternoon.
Wright, who started retreating to Deltaville in the late 1970s, grew weary of racing back and forth to Richmond on Route 33, so he and Pam moved here full time a few years ago. They live in a cottage Wright bought in 1988. They can see the bay from their living room: 200 yards through other people's yards. At their new place, the bay laps up on what will be their own private beach.
Over a lunch of clam chowder, tuna poppers, fish sandwiches and brown ale at The Galley in Deltaville, the Wrights talked about their children - Pete has two grown sons from his first marriage, Pam a grown daughter from hers - and their two grandchildren. They talked about their new book - Wrightslaw: No Child Left Behind, due out in the next couple of months - and their upcoming conferences. They talked about balancing work and fun and their brimming on-the-road schedule. They ticked off the months that are particularly busy, which included most of them.
"But we put the lid on October," Pete said. "Living on the Chesapeake Bay, there's no prettier month than October."
No crime in doing good and having fun.
"It has been suggested that perhaps our greatest legacy in life is knowing that the world is a little better off for our having walked through it," said Ron David, the child neurologist. "Pete has nothing to fear."
and columnist Bill Lohmann and senior photographer Bob Brown feature
intriguing characters and places they find off Virginia's beaten paths
in the "Back Roads" series.
Bob Brown at (804) 649-6382 or firstname.lastname@example.org