UW Law students and alumni help children succeed and stay in school
UW Law School students and graduates are known for their strongly held commitment to community service. Starting during the first week of law school, new students learn that law is a service profession and spend time giving back to schools and community organizations throughout Madison. For many, that commitment continues on throughout their years as law students, and far beyond. From mentoring and education to advocacy and guidance, UW Law students and alumni can often be found making a difference in the heart of the community: public schools.
Helping Children Stay in School
A few years ago, Diane Rondini ’87 began to notice a disturbing trend. She was seeing more and more students expelled from school for misconduct.
According to Rondini, a state public defender who has spent her entire career advocating for children in the juvenile justice system, harsh disciplinary measures like expulsion can have a ripple effect that lasts a student’s whole life. Critics of such policies, which disproportionately affect minority youth, refer to the phenomenon as the “school to prison pipeline.”
“Studies show that suspension from school can have a host of negative ramifications, including an increased likelihood of getting caught in the juvenile or criminal justice system,” Rondini says. “On the other hand, we know delinquent or abused and neglected children have better outcomes when they stay in schools.”
Rondini and a group of other public defenders wanted to work on reforms, but they have no jurisdiction over expulsion cases. So they got together to brainstorm solutions, and the Student Expulsion Prevention Project (StEPP) was born. The pilot program provides free legal assistance to any student facing expulsion in the Madison Metropolitan School District.
“We want to ensure that all families have guidance and appropriate resources. Not everyone can afford to hire a lawyer,” she says.
Rondini secured a pro bono grant from the State Bar of Wisconsin to provide specialized training to volunteer attorneys. In their daylong training, participants learn about the nuts and bolts of an expulsion case, as well as adolescent brain development, interviewing the child client, cultural humility, and implicit bias.
Through a partnership with UW Law School’s Pro Bono Program, law student volunteers work on a team with practicing attorneys to help a child and family through the process, putting their legal research, writing, negotiation, and litigation skills into practice.
And thanks to a grant from the Bader Foundation, the program recently expanded to the Milwaukee area, where about 50 volunteers have signed on.
In Madison, with over 60 pro bono volunteers, StEPP has met with early success. Of the 14 cases StEPP has been involved in, 100 percent of the students were out of school for less time than the district originally sought. Over sixty percent were not expelled, and nearly eighty percent were eligible for special education services and placed in Individual Education Programs to help identify the resources they’ll need to succeed in school.
But for Rondini, the response from StEPP clients is the biggest reward: “The children and families are forever grateful for the work that the attorneys and law students provide.”
IT TAKES A VILLAGE (OF LAWYERS)
In addition to the individual attorneys who provide pro bono services for children facing expulsion, nine lawyers form the StEPP committee, which is crucial to the program’s success.
“The volunteer efforts that the StEPP committee has dedicated have been nothing short of incredible,” says Rondini. “From formulating the training and documentation, to giving presentations and providing guidance to our pro bono attorneys, this team has given so much of their time and skills.”
The committee consists of a number of attorneys, many of whom are UW Law graduates: Catherine Dorl ’94, Eileen Fredericks ’05, Matt Giesfeldt ’13, Devon Lee, Puck Tsai ’14, Evan Nordgren ’15, Diane Rondini ’87, Richard Jones, and Gina Pruski ’92.
Street Law Program Helps High School Students Learn about the Law
A group of UW Law School student volunteers is taking its knowledge about law and government to the streets — or more accurately, to the schools.
Since last spring, they have run a classroom program called Street Law at Madison’s East High School. Street Law teens meet every other Monday after school to learn how the law relates to their lives, and to gain a better understanding of the justice system.
Amanda Postel and Jared Prado spearheaded the program; Postel is a third-year UW Law student, and Prado is a 2015 graduate who now works as a Madison police officer. They collaborated with Centro Hispano, a nonprofit that serves the Latino population in Dane County, to identify students for the program.
They also develop the curriculum and write the lesson plans — on topics like the Electoral College and policing — and this semester, they incorporated field trips into the syllabus. Street Law students visited a local law firm and a state representative’s office.
The two get additional help from UW Law students, who receive pro bono credit in exchange for offering classroom support.
Prado says the program has made a difference, both in what the students know and in how they view their world. “After interacting with law students, the kids see attorneys differently, and they start to see themselves differently,” he says. “Maybe they’re seeing a future for themselves that they had no idea existed.”
Postel and Prado see real value in connecting the Law School to the community it serves. They have plans to continue building the program and have scheduled meetings with both the Law School and the school district to discuss options.
“The kids are great, and I wouldn’t trade them for any kids in the world. But the Law School and public school partnership is just as important,” Prado says. “These are our community’s schools, and we should be here.”
Restorative Justice Program Expands to Local Schools
When administrators in the Madison Metropolitan School District wanted to expand their restorative justice services, they collaborated with the experts at UW Law School’s Restorative Justice Project (RJP). Housed in the Frank J. Remington Center, RJP has partnered with the district for several years to create alternatives for students facing exclusionary disciplinary measures.
“Rather than relying on traditional, punitive measures, restorative justice puts the emphasis on what harm has been caused and how we heal that harm,” says Jonathan Scharrer, director of RJP. “Our work in schools focuses on community building and conflict resolution, and on keeping students out of the criminal justice system.”
Founded in 1987, RJP initially focused on prison-based clinical work. When Scharrer came on board in 2013, he started hearing the same feedback over and over again from prisoners: the restorative justice message was needed in schools, before students wound up behind bars. Since then, the clinic has expanded its programming to include schools, community organizations, and nonprofit groups.
Restorative justice practices teach law students that there are alternatives to traditional methods of addressing conflict and harm, says Scharrer. Law students gain a broader understanding of both the criminal justice system and public school policies and procedures, and begin to practice the restorative justice techniques they are learning about.
Kira Visser is a second-year law student who is enrolled in the clinic. As part of her work in RJP, she facilitates weekly sessions with a group of fifteen high school girls who have been cited for fighting with other students, engaging in conflicts with teachers, or habitually missing classes.
Visser relied on her RJP training to design curriculum centered on talking circles, a staple of restorative justice practices. Research has shown talking circles resonate with school-age participants, she says.
Sessions begin with a check-in, where students share something good and bad about their week, before moving into the topic of the day. Themes involve friendship, conflict, or emotion, with each session building on the last to meet the evolving goals of the students and school.
“Talking circles focus on personal storytelling, which builds community by encouraging people to talk about their life in a vulnerable way. It allows us to learn from each other’s experiences, too,” says Visser.
The circles also emphasize the value of listening, and being listened to.
“In RJP, we learn the importance of truly listening, which has been instrumental in building community with students,” says Visser. “Each person gets a chance to respond and everyone listens, which doesn’t sound remarkable until you remember that most people are not good listeners in everyday life and having a group of people just listening to you can be unusual.”
The program is showing early signs of success. Students have stayed out of fights since joining the weekly group, and attendance and participation has remained high.
Visser believes the group has taught her a lot about earning trust and advocating for clients, skills she will put to use as an attorney. And while her work isn’t without challenges, she is optimistic about the inroads she’s made, and what that might mean for the girls’ futures.
“I hope the ripple effect of this small group will also radiate farther out, that the students have learned how to build communities that are supportive and caring, and that they’ll keep building community throughout their school and other parts of their lives,” she says.
BLSA Students Serve as Mentors
UW’s Black Law Student Association and a local high school have joined forces to match law student mentors with 9th, 10th, and 11th graders who need extra support to succeed in school.
“Social workers at Madison Memorial High School identified teens who are at risk of falling behind or losing motivation, but most are still within range of graduating on time and have the desire to continue their educations,” says Jared Padway, a third-year law student.
As BLSA’s director of community development, he works to provide one-on-one mentorship for the teens, pairing each high school student with a law student. The eleven boys currently participating in the program meet weekly, during their study hall, with their mentors.
Padway says law students are especially suited to helping teens stay on track in the short term, while taking the long view on their academic plans.
“The work ethic, organization, and persistence that it takes to accomplish a long-term goal, like getting into law school, are skills that can be learned. Our mentors have the unique opportunity to help others plan, organize, and accomplish distinct goals of their own,” he explains.
The program was founded in 2015 by BLSA alumni Brandon Tillman ’16, while he was still a UW Law student.
“BLSA students have a long history of service to the Law School, the campus, and the community as a whole,” says Mike Hall, the Law School’s director of student life. “They are excellent ambassadors for the Law School, and great role models for the students they mentor.”
Besides regularly checking in on academic progress, mentors are teaching essential self-advocacy skills.
“We’re coaching our mentees on demonstrating to their teachers that they do care and are engaged in their classes. Believe me, if there’s one thing law students know about, it’s advocating for their own academic success,” Padway says. •