Formed less than a year ago in Washington D.C., the School Justice Project works with jailed youth aged 17 to 22 to provide no-cost legal representation and transition services both during incarceration and upon re-entry and ensures that they are able to obtain a high-quality education no matter their circumstances.
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This work is critical and it fills the needs that no other organization is doing, Sarah Comeau told VOXXI. There is a systematic failure to kind of address education entitlement and needs of older adult students with special education needs. The way the current system is structured and set up, these students really fall into a fissure and the system ignores them.
There are no appropriate schools. Theyre deprived of a past graduation, and none of their special education entitlements and rights are being implemented. So the work is necessary in order to enforce their rights.
After realizing the need to serve Washington D.C. youth, Comeau and Claire Blumenson joined forces to create School Justice Project. The organization targets the underprivileged, which in their area is predominantly African-American youth.
However, Comeau points out Latino students have needs just as great stemming from unique issues such as language barriers and enrollment problems. Also, as School Justice Project takes on more of a national prominence, she expects to be serving more Hispanic juveniles who fit the criteria: age range, court involvement and special education needs.
While theres naturally a moral duty to help special education youth, Comeau said its their legal right to get an education that provides strength to her organization.
Its not that this is better for society to make sure were producing active members of the community, these students are entitled to an education under federal law. Comeau said. Theyre entitled to be in school and have whatever support they need to make academic progress until the age of 22. So what we do and what we explore is their right to access education.
One of the common issues School Justice Project deals with regarding Washington D.C. youth involves the lack of facilities in the nations capital. Instead, troubled juveniles are sent across the country to different facilities. The problem is a special education student may pass 9th grade at a facility in Utah, 10th grade at a facility in Iowa and then return to Washington D.C. to find out those high school credits didnt transfer.
The result is, say, a 19-year-old who serves his sentence, gets back on the streets and is technically a 9th grader. As if falling into being an underprivileged special needs student isnt a high enough wall to climb, what kind of future will this student face?
This is the problem with agency failure to impact students, transmit records, update transcripts and for them to really stay on top of their wards, Comeau said.
What we do when students get placed out of district or in the juvenile system, we make sure they have access to their files and they transfer with them to ensure education continuity and to ensure those students are receiving appropriate education programming.
Already School Justice Project is garnering national attention recently being announced as a 2014 Teach For America Social Innovation Award Winner. The annual competition provides budding Teach For America alumni entrepreneurs seed funding and professional coaching.
Teach For America, which works in partnership with communities to expand educational opportunity for children facing the challenges of poverty, awarded $50,000 and 10 hours of consulting support for the School Justice Project.
Within 10 years we want to have a nationwide presence, Comeau said. We want to get our model out there to defense attorneys and other practitioners who can incorporate this type of advocacy into their work. The end game is this population can walk up to school and say enroll me. Enforce my rights and give me what Im entitled to.