Even though there has been an overall decline in juvenile crime and incarceration over the last decade, youths with disabilities continue to be incarcerated at higher rates than the average population. A recent study found that 65 to 70% of youth involved with the justice system in the United States have a disability—that is three times higher than the rate compared to youth without disabilities. In the District of Columbia, that number is even higher, at 80%.
Hanover’s Vice President of Content Innovation, Cam Wall, spoke with Claire Nilsen Blumenson, co-founder and executive director of Washington, DC- based School Justice Project, about her work ensuring special education access for students and the need for school districts to provide increased support to special education students. Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Cam Wall (CW): What is School Justice Project?
Claire Nilsen Blumenson (CNB): School Justice Project is a special education legal services non-profit that works with court-involved students with disabilities. We’re education lawyers who work with students ages 18 to 22 who have special education needs and are involved in either the juvenile or criminal system in Washington, DC. We work with them to make sure their education rights are enforced while they are incarcerated and to ensure they have schools to go back to when they return to their communities.
CW: How did you get started?
CNB: My cofounder Sarah Comeau and I met while working for the DC Public Defender Service. We found that once students were inside juvenile justice facilities, they weren’t receiving the education that they needed for a variety of reasons, particularly students with special education needs. About 80% of students in DC’s juvenile justice system have special education needs, so we could see that there really was a huge unmet need for access to a special education lawyer.
We looked around to see if other organizations were doing this kind of work, but we found that, across the country, organizations focused on special education law were primarily working with parents of younger students and not working with students who are incarcerated. We applied for a fellowship and, happily, were able to launch School Justice Project in August 2013.
CW: Is there personal motivation for you to do this work?
CNB: My parents were both public defenders and so I grew up thinking of the law as an avenue for change and a way to address critical equity and access issues. I did Teach for America after college and became focused on the correlation between academic failure and juvenile delinquency. I loved teaching, but this was also during the time zero tolerance policies reached their height. Across the country, I saw students getting kicked out of school and having no recourse. I decided to go to law school, and there I focused on the intersection of education and the justice system.
CW: In the time that you’ve spent working with DC Public Schools, have there been other things that you see and think, oh, if we had more staff, if we had more resources, I wish we could do that?
CNB: Almost all of our clients have experienced homelessness, for example, and so one of the things that we realized very quickly was that as lawyers, we can work with our clients to solve certain issues, but spending years fighting a special education case in court doesn’t help that student find a place to sleep at night or get connected with social services, like mental health services or having someone to take them to get an ID—that kind of thing. If we had more resources, we would bring on a social worker who could assist our clients with some of the connection issues they are experiencing that, once resolved, allow our clients to focus on education. We would also hire a policy associate to move our systemic work forward.
CW: You have mentioned elsewhere that you occasionally get calls and emails from people in other states asking how they might do something similar to what the School Justice Project does. How often do you get those kinds of requests?
CNB: A lot of the requests come from conferences or trainings that we do. Participants will ask whether it would be possible to bring a special education lawyer into their public defense organization or legal aid organization. The idea behind School Justice Project really is that once you integrate special education law into the juvenile and criminal contexts, so much more can happen. There’s this natural partnership that legal aid and public defenders can have with a special education lawyer. For a lot of the individuals or organizations who are asking how to bring this into other jurisdictions, the answer is relatively simple and a pretty low lift.
CW: Is there anything in particular that you would like school district leaders to know about the work that School Justice Project does?
CNB: The primary thing that I think would be helpful for district leaders to focus on is the large number of students with disabilities involved in the court system. Again, in DC, 80% of students in the juvenile system have special education needs. That’s compared to 15% of students in the general population.
Faced with the question of why so many students with disabilities end up in the juvenile system, a lot of the focus has been on the front end, like getting rid of zero tolerance policies. But districts also have to consider what to do on the back end. These students, up to 22 years old, still have rights under federal special education law, to go back to school in these districts. And if there’s not enough focus on the re-entry piece and supporting older students, then students that get involved in the court system early on, like at age 13, are more likely to end up in prison as adults. District leaders should be focusing on how to reintegrate these students into their communities.
CW: What are the common challenges that school districts face in providing the kind of support that School Justice Project seeks for its clients?
CNB: Older students involved in the juvenile system are at this weird time in their lives because at age 18, special education rights go from the parent to the student. So, all of a sudden, the students are in charge of their special education rights and can make a lot of decisions that they couldn’t before. It’s also a time when they can be simultaneously committed to the juvenile system but have maybe a criminal case or be involved with the child welfare system, so there are a lot of cooks who are always in the kitchen but not much actually happening.
The lack of streamlined communication and clearly delineated responsibilities among the different agencies and entities involved in these students’ lives as they transition from the justice system back to the community is a major contributor to the education inequities we fight against. To address this problem in DC, the city came up with a memorandum of agreement to assign roles and responsibilities to different agencies and outline shared goals. This would be a good practice for other states or municipalities.
CW: Lastly, do you see your work fitting into any broader trends within K-12 education?
CNB: Our work definitely fits into the trend of focusing on individualizing education, recognizing that no student is just like any other student. Whether students have special education needs or not, education should really focus on the individual. Figuring out how systems can do that in an efficient way is something that we’re trying to figure out when we’re working with schools and students and is something we see educators trying to figure out as well.
Additionally, we’re seeing a trend around improving alternative education and making sure students that have faced homelessness, foster care, or juvenile justice have paths to get a diploma no matter what. Not every student is going to go on this straight path the whole time, and so making sure that there are alternative pathways to credentials is critical.
To learn more about the School Justice Project, visit www.sjpdc.org.