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Students Take on K-12 Suspensions in NYC’s Public Schools

May 25, 2016

Despite the reduction in suspension in New York City’s public schools in recent years, many students facing suspensions still encounter overly punitive charges that can mean significant time out of school and lead to them falling behind severely, and possibly dropping out.

Students in CUNY Law’s Student Advocacy Project (SAP) spent this recent semester working to counter that. SAP is the latest effort by the law school’s Economic Justice Project (EJP) clinic to expand its work to improve education access and advocate for students.

Students and supervising faculty in the Student Advocacy Project.

Students and supervising faculty in the Student Advocacy Project.

This spring, 18 second-year students in the EJP clinic and six second-year students in the Criminal Defense clinic made up the inaugural class of the SAP project. The students represented half a dozen students in Queens in suspension hearings before a division in the city’s Department of Education.

“There is a huge representation gap between students who go in to suspension hearings with representation and those who don’t,” said Katherine Groot (’17). “Seeing our ability to mitigate some of the suspensions for students we represent, or the duration of those suspensions, has been gratifying.”

Few K-12 students facing suspension have access to legal representation and advocacy. The quick turnaround of the hearings makes it difficult for attorneys to take on these cases. For many students entering suspension hearings without representation that means that they are unable to effectively challenge improper procedures, inaccurate facts, or unjustly punitive outcomes.

The Student Advocacy Project was instrumental in getting suspension times reduced and unfair suspensions dismissed for their clients.

Lelia James (’17) went through NYC’s public school system and saw the detrimental results suspension could have on some of her friends and fellow students. “Being suspended hindered their education and progress,” she said.

Anne Marie Caruso (’17) was a public school teacher before coming to law school and joined the project to fight for students’ access to education. Working from an advocate’s perspective was important, she said.

Before starting any work, six students from the Criminal Defense clinic and students from EJP completed an intensive two-day training. By the third week, they set up phone and e-mail intake lines, accepted their first two cases and conducted the first hearing. The project received clients via the phone in-take lines and referrals from Queens Legal Services and Legal Aid and other attorneys. Throughout the entire project, the CUNY Law students were trained by and worked under the close supervision of professor Babe Howell.

“Students in the EJP and Criminal Defense clinics, who checked for new cases daily and worked for dozens of hours to prepare for suspension hearings, are serving a critical unmet need,” Howell said. “The work is incredibly complex on an interpersonal level because the parents, children, and schools often have competing and overlapping interests. This complexity provides trial by fire in terms of judgment and advocacy.”

In addition to helping their clients, working on the project has given CUNY Law students an opportunity to improve their trial and advocacy skills.

“To do [work] that attorneys are doing in the field and have extremely supportive supervisors, who are there every step of the way, and representing your client to the best of your ability, is really a unique opportunity,” said Groot.

Part of the student advocacy project work also included researching policy. Students in the EJP clinic also plan to testify at the city’s Department of Education’s discipline hearing in June about the failure to abide by regulations requiring schools to advise children and families of the proposed duration of suspensions, and the harm this failure causes.

CUNY Law’s clinic faculty is currently planning the best way to continue the student advocacy program and its work. The goal is to be able to take on more cases and have a policy-working group, so CUNY Law students can push for discipline code changes informed by their in-the-field experiences.

Learn about the other work CUNY Law students have been doing to advocate for several New York City gas station cashiers and attendants.


Related Categories: Clinic News, Faculty, General News, Spotlight

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