John Flanders began his involvement in special education early in 1996 when his then three-year-old son had a profound hearing loss as the result of contracting Pneumococcal meningitis. In 1997, significantly as the result of his family’s experiences in the PPT process he enrolled in the University of Connecticut School of Law. Following Graduation, he spent two years as the Children’s Rights Advocate for the A.G. Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Washington DC. He has practiced in Connecticut representing families with children with disabilities from 2002 until he was appointed by CPAC in December 2015. John has served on many Commissions and groups working on the rights of people with disabilities, including notably the Connecticut Council on Developmental Disabilities and the State Advisory Committee on Special Education, serving as a member of the Executive Committee of both groups. He is currently a member of the Cromwell Board of Education and Committee to Support People with Disabilities. He formally served as a member of Cromwell’s Board of Selectmen for four years, Board of Finance for five years and as First Selectmen from 2009-11.
Barbara Distinti is the parent of a child in special education in Connecticut. She is an enthusiastic advocate for families because she knows from personal experience how critical it is for ALL students to have appropriate services and supports. She is a member of the Council of Parent Advocates and Attorneys and a Special Education Advocate. Barbara teaches drama at Sacred Heart Greenwich and the New Paradigm Theatre Company and previously taught drama to students of all abilities at Easton Country Day School. She is honored to be part of SEEK and dedicated to empowering parents and making the special education process easier and more effective for all families.
Naomi Nova is a parent of two children on the autism spectrum and is a special education attorney for children with disabilities. She is deeply committed to education reform with a special focus on exclusionary discipline, including the use of restraint, seclusion, suspensions, and expulsions on schoolchildren. Naomi is an active member of the SEEK Legislative Committee, and has testified before the Education Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly in support of legislation to limit the use of restraint and ban the use of seclusion. Naomi graduated from Case Western Reserve University School of Law in 2007. She is currently in private practice and represents families at PPT meetings, mediations, and due process hearings.
Andy Feinstein has represented children with disabilities and their families pursuing appropriate educational programs for the past twenty-two years, first in Hartford with Attorney David C. Shaw, from 2008 to 2015, as a solo practitioner in Mystic, Connecticut, and, since July 1, 2015, as the owner of Feinstein Education Law Group, LLC. He is a founder, the treasurer and Legislative Committee chair of Special Education Equity for Kids in Connecticut (SEEK-CT). He serves on the Board and as co-chair of the Government Relations Committee for the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), the preeminent national special education advocacy organization. He has argued a number of cases on behalf of COPAA before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. He serves as an adjunct professor of special education at Central Connecticut State University, teaching both special education teachers and administrators. Attorney Feinstein graduated from Wesleyan University in 1972 and the New York University School of Law in 1975. He completed the Senior Manager in Government Program at the Kennedy School, Harvard University, in 1983. He has served as a professional staff member of the House Committee on Armed Services and Chief Counsel of the House Civil Service Subcommittee. Formerly, he chaired United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Hartford and served on the Board of Community Health Charities of Connecticut for many years. He was formerly the Treasure of Temple Emanu-El in Waterford, Connecticut, and teaches eighth grade Sunday school. Andy lives in Mystic with his wife Liz Bochain and their grandson Jacob.
Attorney Melissa Gagne holds an undergraduate degree from the Boston Conservatory of Music, a Master’s Degree in English from Connecticut College, a Sixth Year Degree in Education Leadership from Sacred Heart University, and she earned her Juris Doctorate, cum laude, from Quinnipiac University School of Law. Prior to attending law school, Attorney Gagne spent twenty years in public education as a teacher, assistant principal, and principal.
Attorney Gagne is a Special Education Lawyer who has dedicated her law practice to the representation of children and adolescents with disabilities whose families are in disagreement with their public school districts. Attorney Gagne also represents students at Expulsion Hearings and in Title IX investigations.
Jennifer Laviano is an attorney in private practice in Connecticut who focuses on the representation of children and adolescents under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Her representation includes attendance at IEP team meetings and mediation and zealous advocacy in litigation in due process hearings and federal court. Attorney Laviano is a regular presenter, locally and nationally, on the Civil Rights of students with disabilities, and is the co-author of the popular book, Your Special Education Rights: What Your School District Isn’t Telling You and co-founder of YourSpecialEducationRights.com, a video-based website devoted to helping parents understand their rights under the IDEA.
Julie Swanson is a Connecticut special education advocate whose practice grew out of her efforts to help her son. As an advocate, she helps parents navigate the special education process, including attending IEP and Section 504 meetings. She speaks frequently on special education matters and has a long-standing history of service on special education-related state boards, task forces, and legislative appointments to state councils. She is the co-author of Your Special Education Rights: What Your School District Isn’t Telling You and co-founder of YourSpecialEducatonRights.com, a video-based website devoted to helping parents understand their rights under the IDEA.
Jessica de Perio Wittman serves as the Director of the Law Library and Associate Professor of Law at UConn Law School where she teaches Advanced Legal Research, Technology and Law Practice, and Special Education Law. Her research interests focus on assistive and adaptive technologies and its intersection with the law and libraries. Professor de Perio Wittman has held many leadership positions within the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) and continues to be a member of AALL, Law Librarians of New England (LLNE), Southern New England Law Libraries Association (SNELLA), and the Connecticut Bar Association. She is a frequent presenter on cybersecurity and teaching legal technology competencies to today’s law students, as well as other topics related to equity, diversity, and inclusion in law librarianship and legal education. She received her J.D. from Seattle University School of Law and her M.L.S. from the University at Buffalo.
Stephanie Mitchell is an Independent College Consultant and owner of Grapevine College Consulting. Her specialty lies in aiding students with learning differences in finding appropriate post-secondary options. Stephanie holds a Bachelor’s in Art History from St. Olaf College and a Master’s in Italian Renaissance Art History from Syracuse University. After early experiences in general education, and working in other industries, she decided to return to her calling in education. She worked for 15 years as a decoding and 1-1 remediation teacher at Winston Preparatory School in New York and Connecticut. Notably, she was a proud member of the Leadership Team that started Winston’s Connecticut campus. In addition to teaching, she served as the Director of College Placement and Transition Planning at Winston for over 10 years. During her tenure, she successfully placed students in colleges, as well as comprehensive support, transition, and gap year programs. Equally important to her professional experience, Stephanie is the proud mother of two boys who have learning, hearing and attention deficits. She is passionate about applying her knowledge and personal experience to help other parents who are embarking on their journey through the special education process.
Helen Taylor earned her M.B.A. from Post University. She has worked at Eversource Energy for 15 years and volunteers in many organizations including in leadership roles. Helen is currently a Chair of the Employee Recreation Committee and member of the Multicultural Business Resource group and Energy Toastmasters.
Helen has made incredible strides to support Autism Speaks since 2006. She volunteers for the Western Connecticut Autism Speaks Walk (co-founder with Alan), organized two free Autism and Education forums, and is volunteer certified trainer for the State of Connecticut regional police department for autism safety and awareness class. She is an Autism Speaks Ambassador Volunteer and recently advocated with Congress representatives for the Autism Cares Act of 2019, which was signed into law in September.
Since 2008, Helen volunteers weekly as a Special Olympics coach for the Waterbury PAL. She is the CT FEAT board president and board member of Focus Center for Autism. She recently started and volunteers for The Social Chase program which provides social activities for late teens to adults with social challenges. She also just started a cable show about autism and special needs awarenesss, The Social Chase. She is currently a volunteer grant writer for Granville Academy of Waterbury. Helen collaborated with the Waterbury police chief to have Autism Registry events, including registration in the computer emergency database for vulnerable citizens for a positive community and police relations.
Helen volunteers to support her husband’s ACTJamsproductions.com business to bring Jazz and R&B quality affordable shows and the free Brass City Jazz Fest to Connecticut. She also volunteers her photography for non-profit organizations.
Ann R. Smith, JD, MBA is Executive Director of African Caribbean American Parents of Children with Disabilities, Inc. (AFCAMP) commonly known as AFCAMP Advocacy for Children, a parent-led nonprofit organization headquartered in Hartford, CT. Providing resources, training and advocacy, AFCAMP promotes authentic family and youth voice to inform decision-making within child-serving systems including education, juvenile justice, child welfare and children’s behavioral health. AFCAMP trained parents have served on various local and state-level committees and advisory groups. Former parents and staff work as peer support, family advocacy specialists and other roles within some of the very systems that AFCAMP works to change. Celebrating 20 years of service, pursuing equity fuels AFCAMP’s work to transform systems and reduce the adverse and disproportionate impacts experienced by youth of color and youth with disabilities. A multi-level approach is employed to reform systemic policies and practices that proliferate inequitable education, justice, health and economic outcomes for children and families of color with a particular focus on those that are Black. Individual empowerment, family engagement, and policy and legislative advocacy are important tools of system change efforts. Collaboration with community partners, system leaders, and service providers continues to be a key element of AFCAMP’s success. Ann serves in multiple statewide roles, including: Tri-Chair, Connecticut Children’s Behavioral Health Plan Implementation Advisory Board; Leadership Team Member, Connecticut Family Schools Partnerships; Member, Social and Emotional Learning and School Climate Advisory Collaborative; Member, Connecticut Justice Alliance Steering Committee; and Member, Office of Health Strategy, Consumer Advisory. Council.
John P. Regan has been practicing law for 29 years, with a focus on litigation, civil and criminal, and began representing children and their families in Juvenile and criminal court after opening his solo practice. As part of his practice, he served the State of Connecticut Office of Public Defender for many years as a Special Public Defender, seeing first hand the myriad problems his clients faced, including education. As the father of a child on the Autism Spectrum, John views his clients as kindred spirits, and uses his experience to ensure that the court process does not complicate their lives unnecessarily. A member of COPAA since 2008, John is also a supporter of ABILIS in Greenwich and Stamford..
SEEK of CT is a social welfare organization, organized under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. Donations to 501(c)(4) organizations are not tax-deductible for the individual or corporation making the donation. 501(c)(4) organizations are required to disclose certain information publicly, although we are not required to disclose the name and address of any contributor to the organization. Under this statute, we are permitted to lobby extensively and to participate in political activity in support of or opposition to candidates for office, as long as such election activities are not our primary activity