2019 Justin Gilbert, Erin Richardson & Jessica Salonas

Due to unprecidented accomplishments in inclusion over 2018-2019, DSAMT was unable to award just one winner of the 2019 Molly Gavigan Award. This year’s winners have been instrumental in ensuring inclusion across the state, and have made huge strides in inclusion. Since each of them have had very important roles in inclusion in the last year, we couldn't choose just one!

Justin Gilbert

Mr. Gilbert has devoted substantial time to improving the lives of public school conditions for children with disabilities. Current litigation projects include (1) least restrictive environments in East Tennessee for children with intellectual disabilities, Down syndrome, and autism; (2) state-wide funding impediments to least restrictive environment across the state of Tennessee; (3) the excessive use of restraints and isolations upon children with disabilities; and (4) the provision of health services through Section 504 and the ADA for children with impairments such as epilepsy and neurological impairments.

Mr. Gilbert has initiated direct federal actions involving abuse cases, lack of funding, and systemic impediments to least restrictive environments. He has also tried numerous due process cases for children with disabilities, followed by federal court enforcement actions across the state — in Knoxville, Nashville, and Chattanooga. He has then enforced the rights of children, as well as established important case law before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on issues ranging from school retaliation and school segregation of children with disabilities.

Erin Richardson

Erin Richardson is a parent of three children, including an 18-year-old son with autism and a chromosomal abnormality. She is a graduate of American University (1988) and The University of Florida College of Law (1992). Formerly a practicing attorney, Erin’s journey with her own son eventually led her away from the practice of law, and into helping and advocating for other students with disabilities. Erin served as the Director of Legal Advocacy at The Arc Davidson County from 2007 to 2009, and volunteered for Mental Disabilities Rights International from 2009 to 2010 (in Belgrade, Serbia). During her time at The Arc of Davidson County, she was instrumental in creating what is now the Volunteer Advocacy Program, currently housed at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. Erin co-founded the Special Education Advocacy Center (SEAC) in 2011, and served as that organization's Executive Director until 2017. She recently has served as a special needs trust officer at Cumberland Trust. She is a member of COPAA and a frequent speaker/lecturer on special education topics. In her free time, Erin enjoys spending time with her family, yoga, reading and knitting.

Jessica Salonus

Ms. Salonus is a special education attorney at The Salonus Firm, PLC, as well as a Consulting Attorney for the nationwide advocacy organization, COPAA, which assists families, advocates and attorneys of children with special needs. Ms. Salonus graduated with honors with a degree in Management from Louisiana State University and with honors from the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law with her law degree, where she was also the Managing Editor of the Law Review.

Ms. Salonus has a personal understanding of what it means to be a parent of a child with a disability. Accordingly, from advocacy at the IEP table, to litigating claims in due process hearings and federal court, Ms. Salonus has a private practice dedicated to helping secure the services, placements, and accommodations a child deserves under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (“IDEA”), Section 504, and/or the ADA. She also seeks compensation for physical and/or emotional injuries caused to a child as a result of abuse or illegal actions taken against the child by school officials. Additionally, Ms. Salonus has a wealth of experience litigating cases involving retaliation against parents or teachers who advocate for the rights of children with disabilities. Ms. Salonus has also written and assisted with numerous Amicus Curiaebriefs to federal appellate courts throughout the United States on a wide variety of legal issues advancing the rights of children with special needs.