A Chance to Succeed
About a year ago, a middle-school child made an appearance in juvenile court.
The boy came from a broken home and had a history of multiple suspensions resulting
from in-school disciplinary problems.
The judge, attempting to get a sense of the boy, asked, "What is the best
book you've ever read?"
"I've never read a book," the boy replied quietly.
The judge, somewhat taken aback, tried a different tactic. "Okay, so what
is your favorite book that's been read to you?"
The boy paused. "No one has ever read me a book," he said.
youth are far
more likely to get
into fights, carry a
crimes, use drugs
and have sex.
The judge, appalled and profoundly affected by the boy's story, ordered that
the child be returned to school, with a tutor, and specific educational services.
Status reports were ordered from the caseworker so the judge could follow the
boy's progress. Several months passed and the judge received word that the
child had won an essay contest. By the end of that school year, the judge was
pleased to hear that the boy was thriving and his report card gave testimony – he
received A's and B's in all of his classes.
It goes without saying that the proactive action of a compassionate judge
was a turning point in this child's life. What must not go without saying is
that similar stories are being heard in courts and schools around the state – and
few people seem to be paying attention. But the suspension and expulsion statistics
are too stunning to continue to ignore.
The suspension rate for Maryland public schools has been steadily rising
for the past 10 years. Suspensions range across the grades. In the 2004 – 2005
school year, of the over 70,000 suspensions, nearly 10,000 of them were of
grammar school children, over 500 of which were in kindergarten. Of these 70,000+
suspensions, 79 percent of the students received no educational services during
the period of suspension. Approximately 21 percent were students with disabilities,
many of whom had less than adequate assistance. A significant number of suspended
students are from families with limited resources who cannot afford to pursue
legal protection of their children's rights.
Another disturbing trend is an increase in the pressure being applied by
school officials to students with a history of disciplinary problems. These
students, and their families, are being "encouraged" to withdraw from school
upon reaching the age of 16. These suspended or expelled students will be found
on the streets or home alone – in either case, without supervision. Numerous
articles published by experts on children assure us that unschooled and unsupervised
youth do not do well. Unsupervised youth are far more likely to get into fights,
carry a weapon, commit crimes, use drugs and alcohol, smoke cigarettes and
have sex. As these detrimental behaviors increase, so does the likelihood that
the perpetrators will come before a juvenile court.
There is also evidence to suggest that a history of school suspensions accelerates
the path to delinquency. In short, children need to be supervised and the best
place to do that is in school.
For these reasons, the Children's Education Project was launched. Initiated
by the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland (PBRC), the project is a collaborative
effort between PBRC, the Maryland Disability Law Center and the Maryland Office
of the Public Defender. The purpose of this project is to recruit lawyers to
represent children in negotiations for educational services in schools, to
act as advocates in suspension and expulsion hearings, and to help desiring
older students who have been forced out of school to reenroll. The goal is
to keep kids in school and provide them with the tools they need to succeed.
Referrals can come from the Public Defender's Office, Maryland Disability
Law Center, the courts, parents and/or juvenile service programs. Lawyers interested
in volunteering will be trained to represent students in special education
and disciplinary hearings. They will also learn how to work with parents and
teachers to find the best tools and services to help students succeed. These
volunteer lawyers will also be trained to represent students who are suspended,
expelled or withdrawn from school to help get back into school and to address
the issues related to keeping them there.
The Children's Education Project is just another example of the legal services
community, working in conjunction with dedicated volunteers, the courts and
the State, to help bring much-needed services to the citizens of Maryland.
For more information on the Children's Education Project or to sign up for
training, contact Jon Moseley or Precious Ratliff at PBRC at (410) 837-9379
or (800) 396-1274. (Please see the training ad on Page 6 of this issue for
upcoming dates and times.) If you or someone you know is in need of this service,
you can contact the Maryland Disability Law Center directly at (410) 727-6352.
Jon Moseley is Volunteer Services Coordinator for
the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland.