Why Special Education Matters.

Why Special Education Laws Matter

By Shannon Simone | Guest Blogger

October 16, 2017

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, many Americans find themselves confused, afraid, and angry. Though Trump was fiercely supported by lower-income white Americans, his administration has expressed little, if any, commitment to the uplift of Americans marginalized by class since the election, and has directly contributed to the exacerbation of challenges faced by Americans of color and immigrants. The policies being enacted by the current administration, along with rising political and social tensions, leave many wondering where we are headed as a nation and whether or not we will make progress for America’s most marginalized, especially children.

If we are to understand the complex challenges facing Americans of all stripes and colors, we must first acknowledge that systemic racism is a primary fixture of this country’s structural foundation. Racism, and its self-replicating cycles of oppression, continue to affect us all in profound, terrifying ways, even though we live in the 21st century. Racism never went anywhere. Donald Trump just reminded us that it never left. If we agree that systemic racism significantly informs the structural composition of American society, we must also accept that our social, political, and economic institutions interlock with it. America’s education system, for instance, is mired in a history of racial discrimination, negligence, and denial. Most of us are aware of the Brown v. Board supreme court decision, the factors behind the case, and the effects of overturning the legal segregation of American public schools. Many of us, however, do not understand how racism affects disadvantaged students beyond the matter of integration. Take a longer look at the issues and one will find many complex, hidden negligences, such as the fact that special education laws are not enforced. When it comes to this particular issue, the victims are, unsurprisingly, predominately black and male. 

I can almost hear a collective sigh; one of frustration from black readers tired of the seemingly endless cycles of oppression and the other from white readers tired of reading about the unending problem of racism.  This collective frustration will not dissipate until and unless our country recognizes that racism belongs to all of us, and can only be undone with all of us committing to fight for equal and fair treatment for people of color and immigrants.   

Place yourself in the shoes of a young black man named Demetri, if you can.  Demetri grew up in and out of group homes and juvenile detention centers all of his young life.  In addition to a lack of stability, support, and homelessness, Demetri struggles with learning disabilities as a student with special education needs. One might think that Demetri would receive more support because of his needs and circumstances, but students like Demetri are routinely left behind or pushed out of the education system. You may be thinking: Why should I care? What makes Demetri’s struggle so significant?  You should care because Demetri is entitled to an education.  He is entitled to complete his high school education regardless of court-involvement or his actions. Yet, he was not provided one. 

What the majority of us don’t know or even think about – unless it impacts us directly - is that a child with learning disabilities that receives special education has a right to a quality education and should matriculate from kindergarten through high school like every other child.  However, we know that children living in high-poverty neighborhoods are less likely to receive a quality education, especially those students in the justice systems.  How can that be possible when a federal law mandates that all students, like Demetri, with special education needs are entitled to a free appropriate public education?  We know the answer to this question lies in systemic racism and in our infrastructure built on slavery, followed by Jim Crow segregation, urban ghettoization, and mass incarceration.

School Justice Project (SJP) is a nonprofit special education legal services organization, founded in August 2013 by Claire Nilsen Blumenson and Sarah Comeau; both attorneys, both white women, and both educated at top schools.  These women could have practiced the type of law that help the rich stay rich and get richer or they could fight for justice and equality in education and be a voice for the voiceless.  They chose the latter. They are special education attorneys and their mission is to protect the legal rights of students with disabilities and ensure their access to the education guaranteed them by District and federal law. 

SJP’s client base is unsurprisingly 86% male, 96% Black and 4% Latinx, but the work of SJP goes beyond representing black and brown clients with special needs; what makes their work even more difficult is the fact that their clients are 17-22 years old with special education needs and involved in the District’s juvenile or criminal justice systems.  These are young people that have never had the opportunity to fully utilize the education system and have the system work for them.  By the time these students come of age and are considered adults, reentry into the school system – even though they still have a right to continue their education – can be nearly impossible.

SJP works to address what it has coined “the second pipeline” – the transference of students from the juvenile system into the adult criminal justice system.  The idea is that older students don’t fit into the traditional school-to-prison pipeline movement. Additionally, people often don’t know about the issues facing this older student population, and a wide gap in data doesn’t help. When it comes to different systems collecting different data from multiple agencies, and when you have students that are lost in these systems, keeping accurate data doesn’t seem to be the highest priority, even when it is the law.  While students are shipped to various juvenile detention centers in different states and are taking classes to keep up with their schooling, records are most always muddled and confusion and miscommunication ensues. Claire explains: “The school systems will have one policy, like not taking partial credits.  But then the juvenile justice agency will have a policy where they send students out to facilities that will only give them partial credits.  So there’s this overlap where these students will never be coming back from juvenile justice facilities with full credits, and yet, the education agencies aren’t going to accept them because they’re not full credits.”  The law is supposed to protect these students and it isn’t the students’ responsibility to make sure that the record keeping of all of these various facilities is accurate. 

Ultimately, the education rights of these students are disregarded and deemed unimportant and, in turn, schools deny them the opportunity to reenter the classroom and blame the student.  This impacts the services the students are promised through special education once they’ve left the juvenile system and has negative effects on students if and when they do reenter the classroom. 

Remember Demetri?  Let’s put ourselves back in his shoes. His story seems to encapsulate how counterproductive our systems of care can be when they are more about agencies staying in their lane and completing their designated activities than about collaborating to serve young people and strengthen communities. Having lost his parents and grandparents, he faced his biggest fear: aging out of care as a homeless young person without a quality education or career skills. He was determined to complete his schooling and improve his life conditions, in spite of the agency barriers and personal hardships.

In December 2012, he began working with Claire (and then SJP) to get the special education services he needed and enroll in a school that could meet his needs. Previously, he had been placed in an untenable education environment – a GED program. The juvenile justice system had placed him in GED courses, instead of diploma courses, making it impossible for him to achieve academic success as he needed special education (something not available in GED programs). GED programs are especially difficult for students with special education needs because the programs do not provide special education services. Once with SJP, he began the process of reentering the school system. Yet, each time he attempted to enroll, he was denied – in stark violation of controlling law that guaranteed to him a high school diploma option.

He was told his only option would be 9th grade at a neighborhood DCPS high school.  In Demetri’s own words he says, “To be honest with you, I felt very, very, embarrassed.  Humiliated.”  Fortunately, Demetri was not deterred.  He turned to litigation. Determined to get his high school diploma, he knew he needed to seek out the individualized instruction and services he was owed under law.

After years of legal battles, Demetri is still working towards receiving his diploma and he is also now a youth advocate for education reform. Demetri recently talked about his work with SJP:

We have been seeing great progress within these four years. We have inserted policies in the juvenile system and the education system. Since I met Ms. Claire when I was 20 years old, I have been recognized by other organizations that now want me to better the system through their own organizations. We need more advocates like this doing this work. Ms. Claire has turned me into the advocate I am and I am proud to be a young black African-American youth leader and activist so I can now be a voice for the youth.

His story is one of millions, but hopefully, his story and voice will make a difference for those currently being discarded, funneled through the second pipeline, and unrepresented. Without an education, without options, without support, and with those in power happier when black and brown people are imprisoned, it’s of no surprise that recidivism is an unending cycle. It costs more money to keep prisons running than to actually educate, rehabilitate, and employ. This isn’t an inconsequential issue; this impacts us all.  Access to education leads to gainful employment and positive community engagement. 

How can you help?  Supporting SJP is a start. 

SJP's Legal Team Grows With Two New Attorneys Hired in September 2017

Two New Attorneys Join School Justice Project



School Justice Project (SJP) is pleased to welcome two attorneys to its team. In September 2017, seasoned special education attorney Kimberly Glassman joined SJP as Special Projects Attorney. Over the next six months, Kim will work with the SJP team to provide direct representation to clients, tackle systemic advocacy projects surrounding education for incarcerated youth, and conduct special education legal trainings for practitioners and community members.  School Justice Project also welcomed Claire Chevrier, a 2017 graduate of Georgetown University Law School. Claire joins SJP as a 2017 Equal Justice Works Fellow, sponsored by Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP. Claire’s project is to establish, pilot, and launch education legal clinics in partnership with D.C. community-based organizations and agencies to bring legal services to court-involved students with special education needs.

About Kim Glassman

Kim has extensive experience advocating for the rights of children with disabilities.  Her practice centers on special education, suspension and expulsion cases.  She has represented over 200 parents and guardians in all phases of special education matters, including IEP meetings, manifestation determinations, disciplinary hearings, mediations and due process hearings.  Kim currently serves as a co-chair of the Special Education Attorney Roundtable and as a Special Education and Parent Attorney on the Counsel for Child Abuse and Neglect (CCAN) for the District of Columbia Superior Court. Before entering private practice, Kim was a Staff Attorney for the Legal Aid Bureau in Riverdale, Maryland, where she represented indigent clients in a wide range of civil matters and a Skadden Fellow at the National Women’s Law Center, working on issues related to Family Economic Security.  She is admitted to the bars of Maryland, the District of Columbia, and the United States District Court, District of Maryland and District of Columbia.  She earned her J.D. from the Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, in May 2003, magna cum laude, and earned a B.A., cum laude, in History and Political Science from SUNY Geneseo in May 2000. 

 About Claire Chevrier

Claire graduated cum laude from Georgetown University Law Center, where she focused on education and civil rights law. While there, Claire interned for the Children’s Law Center’s Special Education Project, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division’s Educational Opportunities Section, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights’ Educational Opportunities Project. Claire also represented low-income tenants in the Landlord and Tenant Branch of DC Superior Court through the DC Law Students in Court Clinic, for which she won the Nathan A. Neal Award for Outstanding Advocacy. In 2016, Claire had the privilege of interning for Professor Brian Wolfman, which put her on the petitioner’s team for the landmark special education case, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District.

About School Justice Project

School Justice Project (“SJP”) is a special education legal services and advocacy organization in the District of Columbia dedicated to ensuring that older (ages 17-22), court-involved youth with disabilities receive a quality education, during incarceration and throughout reintegration. By using special education advocacy in the juvenile and criminal contexts, SJP aims to increase access to education, decrease future court contact, and reshape the education and justice landscapes for older court-involved students with disabilities. 

To contact SJP, please email info@sjpdc.org or visit us online at www.sjpdc.org

SJP Testifies at D.C. Council during Councilmember David Grosso's Roundtable on Education for students during detention, commitment, and incarceration.

Excerpt from Statement of School Justice Project to Councilmember David Grosso Education for Students During and After Detention, Commitment, or Incarceration

Sarah Comeau, SJP's Director of Programs & Co-Founder, testified on October 4, 2017.

"It is clear that educational continuity and access to appropriate special education services is a critical problem for students during detention, commitment, and incarceration. As a result, these students struggle to successfully return to our community and reengage in education. In turn, they struggle to secure employment and create positive futures for themselves and their families. There have been attempts to hold the responsible agencies accountable for these deprivations. Our work has led to the execution of an interagency MOA and the issuance of Letters of Decision instructing the agencies to take corrective action. Yet nothing has changed, and our students continue to pay the price.
We need a law to compel agency action. Students must receive credit for the work they complete. Students must have access to an education and a path to a high school diploma. But first, we must identify the strengths and weaknesses of each agency, understand their capacities, and be thoughtful about who should hold responsibility. We believe that this should be a collaborative process among the agencies, community-based organizations, and youth themselves, and we are ready to work in partnership to reach our common goal. We hope that today’s conversations are the first of many about these critical issues. We ask that as a follow-up to today’s hearing you convene a stakeholder meeting consisting of relevant agencies, students, and local community-based providers and stakeholders where, together, we will set an agenda for continued collaboration to develop a law that will ensure that students during detention, commitment, and incarceration can access a path to a high school diploma and receive credit for the work they complete."
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Alix Partners receives Consulting Magazine's 2017 Excellence in Social Community Investment Award for its work with SJP

Check out the recent press release on our partner, AlixPartners below or on their website, available here:

AlixPartners receives the Excellence in Social Community Investment Award from Consulting Magazine

The global advisory firm will be recognized at the awards gala in New York City on September 14, 2017

New York (Sept. 15, 2017) - Global advisory firm AlixPartners announced today it received the Consulting Magazine 2017 Award for Excellence in Social Community Investment for its longstanding partnership with Washington, D.C.-based educational advocacy organization School Justice Project (SJP).

The firm’s efforts with School Justice Project were recognized yesterday at the University Club in New York during the magazine’s fourth annual Social & Community Investment Gala Awards dinner. The firm will also be featured in the October issue of Consulting Magazine.

“We’re honored to receive such a wonderful recognition for our work with School Justice Project and the impact the organization has had with students in the community,” said Susan Markel, Managing Director and Local Market Leader for the firm’s Washington, DC office. 

“We appreciate the invaluable support AlixPartners continues to give us to protect and enforce special education rights for students in need,” said Claire Blumenson, Executive Director & Co-Founder of School Justice Project.

The Excellence in Social and Community Investments awards are based on the research compiled by the magazine on the client work consulting firms do and investments they make for social and community causes by partnering with non-profits, government entities, and associations for the greater good.

About School Justice Project (SJP)
School Justice Project (SJP) is a legal services and advocacy organization serving older students with special education needs who are involved in DC's justice systems. SJP's special education attorneys work with their clients to protect and enforce special education rights. Through its individual representation and systemic advocacy programs, the organization aims to spark a system-wide overhaul, changing the educational landscape for older court-involved students with special education needs who are involved in DC's juvenile and criminal justice systems.

About AlixPartners
In today’s fast paced global market timing is everything. You want to protect, grow or transform your business. To meet these challenges, we offer clients small teams of highly qualified experts with profound sector and operational insight. Our clients include corporate boards and management, law firms, investment banks, investors and others who appreciate the candour, dedication, and transformative expertise of our teams. We will ensure insight drives action at that exact moment that is critical for success. When it really matters. 

Media Contacts:
Alex J. Stockham, Rubenstein
+1 (646) 251-3736

Introducing the “Blueprint for Change: Education Success for Youth in the Juvenile Justice System”

In May, the Legal Center for Youth Justice and Education (LCYJE) launched a new website that will serve as a dynamic, interactive tool to improve the educational and life outcomes of youth involved with the juvenile justice system. 

On June 27, 2017 at 2pm, SJP Executive Director Claire Blumenson will join LCYJE as a presenter for an introductory webinar on Blueprint for Change: Education Success for Youth in the Juvenile Justice System. This comprehensive resource outlines 10 goals to achieve education success for youth who are in the juvenile justice system. In addition to the goals that are the pillars of this framework, the Blueprint includes benchmarks that help measure progress towards those goals, as well as hundreds of examples of programs, legislation, resources, policies and practices in place across the country that seek to remove barriers and improve youth’s education success. Presenters include: 

  • Kate Burdick, Juvenile Law Center 
  • Whiquitta Tobar, Juvenile Law Center 
  • Maura McInerney, Education Law Center-PA 
  • Claire Nilsen Blumenson, Esq., Executive Director & Co-Founder, School Justice Project

You can also view the Blueprint for Change website here: https://www.jjeducationblueprint.org/

Special Education Rights and Reentry: ListenUp Radio Features SJP's Director of Programs

Director of Programs Sarah Comeau and defense attorney James King joined the host of ListenUp Radio for an episode on special education rights and the barriers to education access during incarceration and reentry. King and Comeau provided an overview of the issues, as well as tips for overcoming the obstacles court-involved students face when trying to enforce their rights. 

2016 Metrics Overview

Demographics & Process

SJP attorneys have represented 76 clients. At the time of representation, our clients are on average 18 and a half years old, predominately from wards 7 and 8 (41% of all clients) or homeless (19%). 96% of clients served have identified as Black and 4% as Latino; 88% have identified as male and 12% as female.

Our clients are introduced to SJP through a variety of sources.   including referrals and court-appointments. We have received over 100 referrals since opening doors. For those we had capacity to accept, the sources included students, lawyers, probation officers, schools,  and the court. Specifically, the 2016 final source breakdown was: Current or former clients (28%), defense attorneys (25%), education attorneys (12%), or community-based service providers (includes civil legal service providers) (18%). The remainder of our clients come from other practitioners, the court, and schools. 

Education and Employment

In 2016, 87% of SJP clients were enrolled in an education program, including 60% of clients enrolling immediately upon release from secure detention or incarceration. Nearly 75% of SJP clients remain enrolled for 90-days post-enrollment. Once enrolled, 77% of SJP clients demonstrate improved attendance and 81% demonstrate improved grades. The vast majority of clients earned credits toward their high school diploma, and by the end of the current school year, we anticipate another 5 clients graduating or obtaining a GED. 95% of SJP clients demonstrate increased knowledge of post- secondary planning. Although there are many barriers to finding employment while trying to finish high school after age 18, our clients demonstrate commitment to doing both by continuing to seek out jobs or participating in subsidized employment programs. 78% of SJP clients are engaged in the labor force, as defined by actively seeking employment, engaged in a job program, or engaged in subsidized employment. 30% of SJP clients have secured unsubsidized employment.

Empowerment, Leadership, and Community

SJP’s model values self-advocacy and student empowerment. As their engagement in the legal services and advocacy process grows, clients begin understanding their rights and show increased agency and self-confidence. 92% of SJP clients report increased empowerment, as measured by self-expressions of feeling comfortable speaking at special education or other school meetings and initiating ways for his/her voice to be heard. This also manifests in students taking on major tasks without an attorney either doing it for them or accompanying them. Examples include clients securing vital documents, enrolling in school, or touring programs on their own and reporting back. 100% of SJP clients have an increased understanding of rights. With increased empowerment and understanding of rights, we have seen 57% of clients show increased civic engagement through registering to vote, completing community service hours, or securing identification cards. 25% of clients pursued leadership roles in the classroom or community.

Systemic Pleadings

This year, we filed two state complaints that resulted in individual and systemic relief for our clients. Most recently, we filed a complaint on behalf of students incarcerated in D.C. Jail. The complaint was against 3 government agencies and, after an investigation, Letters of Decision was issued. The LODs outlined 11 systemic and student-level violations against District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). To correct the systemic violations, DCPS was ordered to ensure that all students receive specialized instruction.

In addition, the three agencies must enter into an agreement outlining how they will identify youth who are eligible to be enrolled in school once they arrive at DC Jail and ensure timely enrollment. The agreement must also outline how youth will receive education services while in segregation. On an individual level, the Letters of Decision ordered the agencies to provide SJP’s three named clients with a minimum of 974 hours of tutoring, behavioral support services, speech-language pathology, and transition services. This translates to about $68,000 worth of services.

Legal Trainings

During 2016, we conducted 14 legal trainings and presentations to over 2,200 individuals including judges, lawyers, students, and community members. The trainings include quarterly trainings for D.C. Superior Court, D.C. Superior Court’s Annual Family Court Conference, presentations to Georgetown Law School and George Washington Law School, a training for probation officers, and a training for students detained in D.C.’s long-term juvenile justice facility. 

2017 Q1 Accomplishments

·      SJP Staff submitted comments to D.C.’s juvenile justice agency’s case management manual. The comments provided recommendations and modifications to how social workers and case managers can better ensure that each young person in the juvenile justice system can access a quality education.

·      Comeau testified at the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services Performance Oversight Hearing for the 2016 fiscal year for the D.C. Council. Comeau’s testimony emphasized the importance of community-based placements and services over out-of-state residential facilities, the need for transparency and consistency in data collection, and transition planning for students returning home. 

·      Russo represented SJP in the D.C. Secondary Transition Community of Practice, a cross section of D.C. stakeholders who work jointly to support DC youth with disabilities as they transition from high school to independent adulthood. Russo will attend the group’s upcoming retreat to develop goals and work priorities for the next year.

·      Comeau filed a complaint on behalf of an individual client in Federal District Court against the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the District of Columbia education agencies. The complaint alleged that D.C. students placed in prisons do not have access to special education or any path to a high school diploma, contrary to Federal and District law.

·      Russo filed a due process complaint on behalf of an individual client and, as a result, secured the following in compensatory education services: 130 hours of tutoring and 25 hours of transition services.

·      Comeau met with a member from the Executive Office of the Mayor to discuss policy changes regarding placement of District residents in Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities. To follow up on this meeting, Comeau was invited to train staff of D.C.’s Corrections Information Council, a District agency monitoring the placement of District residents in Federal Bureau of Prisons prisons, on the lack of access to education and special education. Comeau and the CIC are working together to find a policy solution so all residents can access education.

·      SJP staff participated in quarterly meeting with the Director of D.C.’s juvenile justice agency to help ensure that policies and procedures will reflect the special education entitlements of court-involved young people.