Guest blog by Claire Nilsen Blumenson, Executive Director & Co-Founder, School Justice Project
Overview of School Justice Project
School Justice Project (SJP) is a special education legal services organization dedicated to court-involved students with disabilities ages 17-22. Our attorneys work directly with our clients to fight for their education under special education law. We advocate for schools that meet our client’s needs, and we partner with defense attorneys to seek alternatives to incarceration. By integrating special education law into juvenile and criminal court matters, SJP aims to increase access to education, decrease future court contact, and reshape the education and justice landscapes for older youth with disabilities.
A Population in Urgent Need
Access to special education legal services can combat the crises of educational inequity and mass incarceration. My co-founder, Sarah Comeau, and I learned how deeply entrenched the education issues are for court-involved students with disabilities while working inside DC’s secure juvenile detention facilities during our post-graduate legal fellowships at the D.C. Public Defender Service. We started SJP for young people like HD (initials used for privacy), one of my first clients: HD grew up in the foster system, and then the juvenile justice system. During his teenage years, the juvenile justice system moved him to facilities across the country. His school records were lost countless times. He was placed in all sorts of classes that DC does not accept towards graduation. He took and passed Algebra II multiple times, yet never took Algebra I. By the time he was 20, HD had earned tons of credits that didn’t count for D.C. graduation. At that point, the juvenile justice agency placed him in a group home in Maryland that only offered GEDs—no high school diploma options to speak of.
Like HD, so many of the young people we worked with faced systemic barriers that made it impossible to access special education. The key issues we saw were 1) inadequate education inside juvenile detention facilities, 2) problems transferring or accumulating school credits that count towards graduation, and 3) gaps in interagency communication, which often resulted in problems transferring school records. Only from working inside the juvenile facilities did we begin to understand how deep the systemic issues were and how they seemed to live below the surface, in the gaps of the intersection of the juvenile, criminal justice, and education systems.
How We Work
SJP’s model simultaneously advances and protects students’ special education rights while furthering their liberty interests. This approach provides students with an exit from the pipeline that they would not otherwise have, opening a new opportunity for improved educational outcomes that will reduce future court contacts.
To achieve our goals, we use three strategies at SJP:
1) Direct representation—working directly with young people to ensure they have access to education, both during incarceration and throughout reentry
2) Systemic advocacy and policy—working to dismantle structural barriers that hinder access to education using legislative and policy advocacy, high impact litigation, and coalition-building
3) Community outreach and legal training—training stakeholders on how to integrate special education into the juvenile and criminal justice context
Access to Special Education during COVID-19
This pandemic has been frightening for everyone, and it has highlighted serious inequities in our country. The financial and health impacts of COVID-19 are being felt disproportionately by communities of color and people living in poverty, and we know that we are looking at yet another racial justice issue. At SJP, we have been very focused on how COVID-19 is affecting our clients and their families, particularly those who are incarcerated. On the education side, we have seen that incarcerated students are not being appropriately supported. While students in the community are receiving instruction and virtual services and have access to their teachers, students in facilities are not receiving adequate education or support.
Even for court-involved students in the community, accessing education is not easy. Students who have been released from facilities report difficulty enrolling in school during this time. And for those who do get connected with schools, gaining access to technology has been difficult. As school has shifted toward distance learning, significant equity issues have become even more apparent, including accessing school, a feat most difficult without a tablet or laptop. While we have been successful in procuring laptops for many of the young people we work with, we anticipate that we may need to assist with WiFi hotspots or wireless bills to ensure they can access the internet longer term.
But technology is not the only answer. Even with computers, students are struggling in the absence of specialized instruction and related services. Distance learning without special education makes meaningful access even harder to attain. Many of our clients are unable to access the curriculum, and the community is struggling to find solutions that will work.
Given the lack of special education services in both secure facilities and in the community, access to special education legal services is especially critical now. This unprecedented time has shown us how crucial compensatory education will be for so many young people—and for the vast majority of court-involved students. We know that when schools and courts resume operations, we will have an influx of need for free special education legal services for students involved in the justice systems. That said, compensatory education cannot be the only answer. We have clients who should be graduating from high school this semester. We have others who need to earn credits over the summer to stay on track next year. Current solutions need to be in play, and students with special education needs must have access to special education now.
Finally, we know that for students to be able to focus on school, their basic needs must be met. For so many young people, the effects of the COVID-19 crisis are widespread and literally life-threatening. In addition to health concerns, the young people we work with are struggling to access food, housing, mental health services, and basic medical care. Schools and community-based programs can play a role in alleviating those burdens, and these needs must be recognized and addressed.
Both D.C. and federal special education law are supposed to guarantee students with disabilities a free, appropriate public education through age 21, regardless of court involvement. This is extremely important because 80% of young people committed to DC’s juvenile justice agency have special education needs, compared to 15% of the general DC student population. We need the highest quality programs serving these students, but the education and justice systems rarely align. This leaves these students to fall into a fissure. Too often, older court-involved students get forgotten and effectively thrown away. To build a more equitable system, we need to prioritize court-involved students with disabilities. Only when we find solutions that include these students will we have found meaningful, viable, and sustainable solutions for our city.