The Children’s Law Clinic at Duke Law School marked its 10th anniversary in 2012. Close to 200 law students have had the opportunity to learn practical lawyering skills while providing free legal advice and representation to low-income, at-risk children in a large region around Durham. Since the Clinic opened its doors, more than 800 families have called on the Clinic for help with their children’s needs. The law students’ work has facilitated the provision of thousands of hours of individualized education for special needs children, the awarding of thousands of dollars in government benefits for impoverished disabled children, and the reversal of many school suspensions, allowing students to be back in the classroom or in an alternative learning environment.
The Clinic’s alumni have taken the skills they learned in the Clinic to law firms as well as to prestigious public interest positions. Among the class of 2012 Clinic alumni are Theresa Gilbertson, who was awarded a two-year fellowship with New Mexico Appleseed, where she is devoting her work to policy changes in education, and Joanna Darcus, who is the recipient of an Independence Foundation Fellowship to work at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia. Clinic alumna Lauren Fine, ’11, is advocating for children at the Philadelphia Juvenile Law Center as the recipient of the Zubrow Fellowship, and her classmate Ashley Chan, ’11, will soon begin an Equal Justice Works Fellowship in Florida, after completing a year with Legal Aid of Arkansas through Americorps. Veronica Allen McLendon, ’10, will soon finish her two-year Skadden Fellowship working on behalf of public school students as a staff attorney at Georgia Legal Services.
During the past year, the Children’s Law Clinic has continued its core work of enforcing the rights of children with disabilities to appropriate special education services, representing students in due process hearings when they face a suspension, and representing disabled children in appeals of their applications for disability benefits through the Supplemental Security Income program. Following are a few case summaries:
A high school student with a long history of emotional disabilities was accused of participating in a group fight, and was suspended from school from late September to the end of the school year. The Clinic filed an administrative complaint on his behalf, arguing that his actions were a manifestation of his disability and that the federal special education law protects him from suspension in this situation. The Clinic quickly entered settlement negotiations with the attorney for the school district and was able to secure a settlement of the matter. The student’s suspension was ended and he was placed in a smaller, more individually supportive school where his emotional issues could be better addressed. He was also provided 10 hours of compensatory education to ease the transition back to school, and the long-term suspension was removed from his record.
An eighth grade student was referred to the Clinic by a psychologist who participates with the Children’s Law Clinic in the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Durham. A review of his records showed that despite average intellectual skills, he was reading at a first grade level. Although in seventh grade he had some specialized instruction in reading, that had been discontinued in the eighth grade and he remained unable to read any of the grade level material in his classes. After an effort to improve his special education services without litigation failed, the Clinic filed a complaint in the Office of Administrative Hearings to enforce his rights to an appropriate education. Extended negotiations with the school district personnel and the district’s lawyers resulted in a very favorable settlement for the student. He is receiving more than 150 hours of one-on-one tutoring in reading and will continue to receive appropriate support as he enters high school next year.
The single mother of six children applied for Supplemental Security Income benefits for one of her children who was diagnosed with Sickle Cell disease. The Social Security Administration had twice denied the application. At the next level of appeal, a Clinic law student worked closely with the mother, the child’s teacher, and the child’s doctor to develop the evidence needed to prove the severity of the child’s condition. Upon the strength of the evidence and an excellent memorandum of law submitted by the Clinic student, the Social Security Administration Judge awarded benefits to the child. The result provided much needed income to the mother that will allow her to meet the special needs of her son with Sickle Cell disease.
In addition to individual case work, many students in the Clinic have the opportunity to work on more systemic issues. One student discovered that the school district policies interpreting a federal disability discrimination law were in error. After she pointed this out to the district, the district invited the Clinic to assist it in revising the policies so they were consistent with the law. Another student helped one of our partner doctors in the Medical-Legal Partnership understand the law regarding the privacy of adolescent health records. Several other students collaborated on research for an advocacy group about the “transition services” aspect of the special education law, giving the group the background it needed to engage in statewide policy advocacy.
The Children’s Law Clinic had the opportunity this past year to co-sponsor a national conference on Special Education Law. Administrative law judges, special education law attorneys, and special education administrators from around the country gathered at Duke Law School for a three-day meeting on the latest topics in special education law. Although it occurred during the law school’s spring break, at least a few of the Clinic students were able to attend some of the workshops. The Clinic hopes this will become a bi-annual event.
The Children’s Law Clinic continues to be an integral part of the skill-building curriculum at Duke Law School and a vital community resource. The law students have enriched the lives of many local children, and those children have in turn enriched the lives of the law students. Upon finishing up their work on cases at the end of a semester, the students often reflect on their experience. Here is what one said:
About five months ago, I was sitting at my sister’s house in front of my computer wondering if I should sign up for the clinic. I knew I’d be at a firm this summer and I had no intention to practice education law. I knew that clinics were a lot of work and I was unsure if I would take anything away from the experience since I’m going into private practice. I decided to do it on a whim, just to try something different. It’s four months later and the clinic has been the most defining experience of law school. . .
The clinic reminded me that being a lawyer isn’t about who can best remember the dissent’s take on why a bright line rule is needed instead of a factor test, or about who raises their hand the most, or about who actually took the time to read through the case notes. It reminded me that even if I’m not the best student in class, I have the most important trait of what I think makes a successful lawyer: I actually enjoy practicing the law.
I really loved getting to interview clients, share advice, and come up with legal strategies to advocate on their behalf. It can be disheartening when the classroom environment is so completely different than the actual practice. I’m glad the clinic gave me a glimpse of the real thing.