Laura N. Rinaldi, education rights lawyer, dies at 38

August 11, 2013

Laura N. Rinaldi, a nonprofit lawyer who championed the special education rights of the District’s youth, died July 29 at MedStar Washington Hospital Center after being struck by a dump truck while walking on a downtown Washington street. She was 38.

According to the communications director of the D.C. police, Ms. Rinaldi was struck by the dump truck while attempting to cross at the intersection of Fourth Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW on June 18. The accident remains under investigation.

Ms. Rinaldi began her legal career in 2002 as a fellow at the Children’s Law Center, a District-based nonprofit organization that provides free legal services to troubled children and their families. She established satellite offices and coordinated medical and legal partnerships at two community health centers. She became a senior supervising attorney in 2005.

Earlier, Ms. Rinaldi was instrumental in winning a court case against the D.C. public school system after the city failed to provide appropriate and necessary special education services to Shawn Reed, a student at C. Melvin Sharpe Health School.

Reed’s mother said her son, who had cerebral palsy and mental disabilities, was denied physical and speech therapy by his school despite her repeated requests and complaints.

Ms. Rinaldi and a Children’s Law Center colleague, Tracy Goodman, argued that separating Reed’s educational needs from his medical needs was impossible. They took the case to U.S. District Court. In 2004, a judge ruled in Reed’s favor and ordered the school system to pay for his placement at St. Coletta of Greater Washington, a private special education school in Alexandria that provided therapy services.

“Laura’s advocacy made it possible for [Reed] to make progress in his education and receive the free and appropriate education he was rightfully entitled to,” Goodman told The Washington Post.

Within months at his new school, Reed showed improvement through increased eye contact and was more willing to accept assistance from others.

“Imagine,” his mother told The Post in 2005, “if he had therapy for a few years.”

From 2009 to 2011, Ms. Rinaldi was a juvenile and special education clinical professor at the University of the District of Columbia’s law school. She then joined the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program, where she oversaw a program that provides free legal counsel to people without health insurance and to immigrant services facilities.

Laura Nicole Rinaldi was born in Silver Spring on Dec. 22, 1974. She was a 1992 graduate of Wheaton High School, where she swam competitively. She received a bachelor’s degree from Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., in 1996 and a law degree from George Washington University in 2001.

Ms. Rinaldi was a board member of Pediatric AIDS/HIV Care, a now-defunct Washington-based nonprofit group that provided services to families of children with AIDS. She also tutored high school students at the Maya Angelou Public Charter School in Washington and contributed to Ruth Colker’s 2011 book, “Special Education Advocacy.”

In 2010, she moved from the District to Bowie.

Survivors include a son, Julian Rinaldi Green of Bowie; her mother, Joan Rinaldi of Ocean Pines, Md.; and a brother, Frank Rinaldi of Washington.

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