By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2010; 10:49 PM
In an effort to keep serious school misbehavior from spiraling into even more serious juvenile delinquency, the law school at the University of the District of Columbia is taking up cases of public school students who have been suspended for weeks or months.
Hundreds of D.C. public school students are suspended every year for periods of up to 90 days. Critics of the practice say that far from encouraging better behavior, the suspensions often open the door to more trouble.
"This kind of discipline isn't instructive or appropriate and it isn't the way to teach students to behave," said Kaitlin Banner, the lawyer who is leading the school discipline effort at UDC's David A. Clarke School of Law.
When she was District schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee pushed for changes in the disciplinary system, saying suspensions were so common they had lost much of their intended effect.
In 2009, under Rhee's leadership, the school system revised its policies to allow challenges to suspensions to be resolved more promptly, schools spokeswoman Safiya Jafari Simmons said Monday in a statement.
The number of DCPS students suspended so far this year or in all of last year was not readily available, she said. Still, she said, the new policies have had an impact.
"These changes greatly decreased the amount of out-of-classroom time, and subsequently instruction, students missed when engaging in the challenge process," Simmons said. "The discipline code and our work with school staff increase the appropriate use of disciplinary consequences, making it less necessary and less common for suspensions to be challenged."
Now, thanks to a six-year, $600,000 grant from the law firm Crowell & Moring, some students are accompanied by a lawyer when they challenge a suspension and seek to return to school. With a lawyer, a student is more likely to have a prompt hearing and more likely to make a persuasive case, Banner said.
The initiative is one of the projects being undertaken by the law school's new Took Crowell Institute for At-Risk Youth, named for Crowell's founder, Eldon "Took" Crowell. A force behind his firm's public service work, Crowell took particular interest in the plight of young people caught up in the juvenile justice system.
After Crowell died in May, the firm wanted to honor his passion, and Crowell's partner in charge of public service, Susan Hoffman, was asked to find a way. With its focus on public interest law and its experience in juvenile justice, UDC's law school emerged as a natural home for what would become the Took Institute, Hoffman said.
And with Prof. Joseph B. Tulman, one of the leading critics of the District's juvenile justice system, on the law school faculty, the institute would have a leader with "a passion for reform," Hoffman said.
Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D), who as the District's human services chief in the early 1990s oversaw the city's juvenile justice agency, is expected to be on hand Tuesday at UDC when Tulman and others mark the creation of the institute.
For years, Tulman and his law school clinic have sought to ensure that the special education and mental health needs so prevalent among delinquent youth in the District aren't overlooked as they pass through the city's juvenile justice system.
The institute seeks to expand that effort. Medicaid will be one focus, with a lawyer dedicated to ensuring that screenings and other health services available through Medicaid are provided, Tulman said.
Student discipline, though, is where the institute has been most active in its first few months. Banner, who worked on the issue as a fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union, was brought on to be the institute's point person on suspensions.
So far, she has taken up the cases of eight students, almost all in high school, and she is unlikely to carry any more cases than that at any given time, she said.
"We have limited capacity," she said.
Indeed, rather than providing representation for every suspended student, the initiative is intended to help a handful of the most at-risk students and in the process encourage more thoughtful disciplinary responses for the many others who aren't represented by lawyers.
"We're a clinical laboratory," Tulman said. "What I do with this team is I look at issues in a different way, more deeply."
Although many of the students Banner has helped aren't exactly pining for homeroom and homework, they and their families understand the impact of long suspensions. "While they might not like school, most of them are concerned about falling behind," Banner said.
And the consequences of falling behind go well beyond school, Banner said. "In a lot of cases," she said, "a suspension is where kids start into the school-to-prison pipeline. They are excluded from the school, they are not engaged in their education and that leads to dropping out."