Being a parent can be tough, but imagine how much tougher it is when your child has a disability. Then imagine you have to work two jobs to make ends meet, that you can't communicate with your child's educators and you've got other kids to take care of.

That's the plight parents are facing when they speak to attorney Devon Rios, who serves in a fellowship position at Learning Rights, a nonprofit organization that advocates for education equity, serving the predominantly Latino population of East L.A.

An East L.A. native herself, Rios' primary focus is on training parents to be advocates for their children as they navigate the thick bureaucracy of LAUSD, offering guidance, resources and even free legal representation if things get to that point. They usually don't, because Rios has managed to earn the trust and respect of the district officials she works with. When Rios gets involved on a child's behalf, the district usually understands that it's because a situation merits serious attention.

Rios' path was deeply influenced by her law school experiences working with pregnant and parenting teens and incarcerated youth. She would review the school records of kids she worked with. The process was eye-opening.

“I'll never forget one client I had — his mother and I were in the hall in juvenile court, and she's sitting there telling me how her son had emotional disabilities, and he'd had these issues since he was 3 years old,” Rios recalls. “She sought services and support and she was told, 'Just wait, just wait.' Now he's 14, he's incarcerated, and he's having the same behaviors he was having when he was 5.”

Rios sighs. “All the lost opportunity. Imagine the options that would have been there if school was easy for him, if he was supported properly.”

The “wait and see” or “they'll outgrow it” brush-off is common. But Rios' argument — and plenty of experts will back her on this — is that the early years of education are crucial, and getting an assessment never hurts. That's why Rios now tries to work closer to the source, with kids from preschool through age 7. She makes sure parents know how to get their concerns heard, and helps them get adequate translation, assessment and whatever else they need to help their children get access to all available educational resources.

“All kinds of social movements and changes, particularly around education, have come out of this community,” Rios says. “With the right information, these are powerful parents. To me, there is no greater force than a Latino mother on a mission, once she has the information and she knows what to do. There's no stopping them. They're tigers.”

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LA Weekly