Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : July 2006

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 PRO BONO Profile:  

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.

Unsupervised
youth are far
more likely to get
into fights, carry a
weapon, commit
crimes, use drugs
and alcohol,
smoke cigarettes
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.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: July 2006

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