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2019 Diane Lipton Award for Outstanding Advocacy Winner: Sonja D. Kerr

The COPAA Board of Directors is pleased to announce Sonja D. Kerr as the recipient of the 2019 Diane Lipton Award for Outstanding Educational Advocacy on Behalf of Children with Disabilities.


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The award is given each year during the COPAA Conference at the Saturday luncheon to an individual or group of individuals who have made a particularly exceptional and outstanding contribution to COPAA's primary mission: obtaining high-quality educational services for children with disabilities. The award honors the memory of Diane Lipton, a tireless advocate for children with disabilities for her entire career. Diane began as a parent-advocate on behalf of her own daughter, Chloe, who had been placed in a segregated school, separated from her peers without disabilities by a chain link fence.  She became an attorney for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), where she championed the civil rights of children with disabilities for over two decades. Diane Lipton was on the Board of COPAA for many years.

COPAA always receive many worthy nominations for this prestigious award. This year the Board chose longtime COPAA member Sonja D. Kerr.  Sonja is a skilled special education attorney with over thirty years of practice at all levels, due process, federal and state courts, and the appellate courts. Sonja currently is on the team at Education Law Division of the firm of Hollingsworth & Zivitz. She has practiced in many jurisdictions across the country and exemplifies the many prongs of the criteria for the Diane Lipton awardee.  

Some of the notable cases Sonja has brought on behalf of families include one of the first cases sustaining the right of a virtually non-verbal child to have critically necessary assistive technology. Anoka Hennepin v. Pachl (D. Minnesota, 2002). Another significant victory was Hale v. Poplar Bluff (8th Circuit, 2002) requiring a school district to continue to provide services to a medically-fragile child in his home as a requirement of the IDEA’s “stay-put” provision. Ms. Kerr also successfully protected a special education student from being expelled. J.B. v. ISD No. 191, (D. Minnesota 1995).

Ms. Kerr obtained a federal court order sanctioning the attorney general of Nebraska for claiming that the state was immune from suit under the IDEA. Edwards v. Fremont (Nebraska 1994). And in Mississippi, Ms. Kerr sued to keep the state in a case involving the denial of a free appropriate public education to a child with dyslexia. Hill v. Laurel School District (Mississippi 1995).

Throughout her career Sonja has worked hard to protect the rights of underserved families. For several years she practiced in Alaska, where she brought the first due process hearing in “Bush” Alaska and represented families throughout the state. As a result of her work there, the Ninth Circuit in Anchorage v. M.P., (9th Circuit, 2012) rejected the notion that parents can be blamed for a child’s denial of a free appropriate program of education. She also successfully obtained ABA services for a child with cerebral palsy and autism. Anchorage School District v. D.S. (Alaska, 2009).  Sonja has also been involved in litigation to protect the rights of Limited English Proficient parents through the process, and regarding the misidentification and disproportionate placement of non-Caucasian students into special education.  

Sonja has brought various class actions to protect the rights of children. This included a class action on behalf of children with autism to protect them from being moved from school to school without proper notice and IEP meetings. P.V. v. School District of Philadelphia (E.D. Pennsylvania, 2013). Another case insisted on the right of children to have individually tailored extended school year services. She was also counsel in a class to protect the rights of students with disabilities in an impoverished district when its school district was about to close for financial reasons.

Sonja willingly shares her knowledge and expertise. She has served as a mentor to other attorneys and advocates who are still increasing their depth of knowledge, skill and professionalism with respect to this complex area of law.  She presents often for COPAA and others across the country, many times pro bono to parent education groups. She has been a review editor for Wrightslaw and written various articles on special education. Ms. Kerr is committed to providing information and training to all persons involved in the IEP process, but especially parents, their attorneys and advocates. She is a frequent writer and lecturer on special education issues.


Sonja is involved in issues of legislation/public policy and often champions issues that need to be addressed systemically.  She inspires positive change in local, state or national policy to further the rights of people with disabilities in formal legislative and administrative policy efforts.


Sonja was among the first to serve on the Board of COPAA in its early years, and served on the Board for a total of 12 of COPAA’s 21 years, one of which included as the COPAA Chair, assisting to advance the goals of families and students on a national level. After her terms on the COPAA Board, Sonja continued to serve COPAA through work on the COPAA Conference and Scholarship Committees.


The award is given at the COPAA Annual Conference, this year at the Sheraton New Orleans, on March 9th.

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