It has now been almost 14 years since the Children's Law Clinic opened its doors to North Carolina children and to Duke Law students. During those years, hundreds of 2nd and 3rd year law students have received important practical opportunities to develop lawyering skills crucial to their future success as lawyers, and in return, their clients have received free legal advice and advocacy that allowed them access to important educational services and government benefits. During this past year alone, the law students' work with individual clients resulted in the provision of thousands of hours of improved individualized education for special needs children, the awarding of tens of thousands of dollars in government benefits for low-income disabled children, and the reversal of many out-of-school suspensions.
The Children's Law Clinic also continued its engagement in larger policy issues and statewide litigation efforts impacting the rights of children in North Carolina. In particular, students during the past year were actively involved in litigation challenging the constitutionality of the General Assembly's private school voucher program. Participating as amicus curiae at both the trial and the appellate levels, Children's Law Clinic students Kristi Lundstrom, '14, Susan Walker, '14, Nicole Davis, '15, and Shamus Hyland, '14 helped create the report, Characteristics of North Carolina Private Schools which became part of the record in the case. Jenna Goldberg, '15 and Peter Wyman, '15, assisted Clinic Director Jane Wettach in preparing a brief for the N. C. Supreme Court in which the Clinic represented a group of North Carolina education scholars troubled by the impact of the voucher program on the public education system in the state.
In their individual advocacy before the Social Security Administration, five students worked on cases before the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review on behalf of two low-income children. In both cases, benefits for these significantly disabled children had been denied, and in both cases, due to the advocacy of the Clinic students, the decision of the agency was reversed by an Administrative Law Judge after the students' submitted legal briefs, affidavits, and medical evidence supporting the children's entitlement to benefits. The result was more than $45,000 in retroactive benefits, along with ongoing future monthly benefits. These two victories were part of a long line of victories by the Clinic in cases of this kind. While nationally the win rate for these cases hovers around 60%, the Clinic's win rate is over 90%.
In the area of school discipline, a number of students represented clients in school suspension hearings this past year. Discipline cases are fast-paced "mini-trials" that occur within 10 days of the student's suspension from school, and are heard by a panel of school administrators. Law students assigned to these cases do a factual investigation, find and prepare witnesses, put on direct witness testimony, cross-examine the school witnesses, and make a closing argument. If the suspension is not reversed at the hearing, the case can be appealed to the superintendent and the school board. In every discipline case handled by Clinic students last year, the suspensions were either completely reversed or were reduced in length. In two cases, law students successfully challenged the school's right to suspend their clients by proving that the alleged misbehavior leading to the suspension was a symptom of their client's disability. The school was therefore required to address the disability, not suspend the student.
In a particularly interesting case last year, Brianna McRae '16, represented a high school student facing a year-long school suspension for allegedly "making threats" outside of school in a group text chat. Brianna's investigation found that not only had the school administrators misunderstood the circumstances surrounding the alleged "threats," they also completely misunderstood the texting app itself. Brianna put on evidence to prove that her client was actually the recipient rather than the sender of the so-called threats. After her investigation and hearing presentation, her client's suspension was ended and he was able to return to school. As a result, her college-bound client remained on track for graduation, with a record that would allow him to apply to his college of choice. Brianna made this observation at the end of the semester:
My clinic experience was outstanding because it was the first time I felt driven to completely immerse myself in a set of facts. The case required a unique attention to detail and helped me to understand what it means to be passionate about your client and his case. I look forward to having that feeling again as I start my legal career.
Law student advocacy at school "IEP" meetings has resulted in many improvements to the educational services our disabled clients receive. Students with disabilities are entitled to individualized education programs (IEP's) with goals and services related to their disability. However, in one of the Clinic's cases last year, an 8th grade student who had had an IEP for his reading disability since 1st grade, was still reading at a 1st grade level. Leah Barnes '15 (JD-LLM) was assigned the case and found that the school had failed to provide a program that appropriately addressed her client's specific educational needs. She wrote a demand letter to the district making the case that the district should immediately begin daily, one-on-one instruction appropriate to her client's specific learning disabilities, and continue that service until her client's educational deficits were fully remediated. The district immediately agreed, and Leah met several times with school district personnel to craft a settlement plan for compensatory education and an improved IEP for her client. In reflecting on her experience in the Clinic, Leah stated:
Seeing a positive outcome for my clients and being able to implement real change in the life of a student with disabilities has truly been my most rewarding experience in law school. I am truly grateful that I had the opportunity to participate in the Children's Law Clinic and advocate on behalf of children in need.
In addition to providing individual representation of students and their families, the Children's Law Clinic is also a resource and voice for North Carolina children statewide. Because of the Clinic's expertise regarding the rights of children with disabilities, both Clinic Director Jane Wettach and Supervising Attorney Brenda Berlin are frequently called upon to train attorneys across the state on the laws impacting students with disabilities, to lead workshops for parents and other professionals, and to consult with the NC Department of Public Instruction about proposed policy changes that impact North Carolina students. Last year, Wettach and Berlin co-authored a chapter on special education law for the Guide to Student Advocacy in North Carolina, which was published by the North Carolina Bar Association. Students worked with Berlin to provide articles and case summaries for statewide newsletters published by the North Carolina Bar Association's Juvenile Justice and Children's Rights Section, which Berlin chaired during the 2014-2015. Additionally, Duke Law School, with leadership from Wettach and Berlin, once again hosted the annual "Special Education Law Roundtable," a day-long conference for North Carolina attorneys who represent children with disabilities.
Year after year, law students consistently find they are truly enriched by their participation in the Children's Law Clinic. James Lambert '15, expressed the sentiment of many other law students who have been part of the Clinic:
Working with the clinic was the most rewarding part of my law school experience. The chance to work directly with a client, discover the relevant facts of the case, and craft an argument is unique to the clinic environment. These experiences will undoubtedly serve me well as I embark on my legal career.
In the 14 years the Law Clinic's doors have been open, it has not only become an invaluable resource to families in Durham, the surrounding counties and across the state, it has continued to help Duke Law students develop and hone the skills that will help them become empathic, skilled, and effective lawyers when they graduate and begin their own practice in the law.