Claire Blumenson '11 on Advocating for Education Rights of Youth in Nation's Capital

December 18, 2013

Called to Serve is a series of Q&As with young UVA Law alumni working in public service careers.

Claire Blumenson

Claire Blumenson, a 2011 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, recently co-founded a nonprofit organization that provides free special education legal services to young people in the juvenile justice system in Washington, D.C.

Blumenson recently discussed her organization and her career path, and offered advice to law students interested in pursuing similar public service work.

You recently co-founded the School Justice Project. What sort of work does this organization do?

School Justice Project is a nonprofit organization providing no-cost special education legal services to youth ages 17-22 who are involved in the District of Columbia juvenile justice system. As education lawyers, we represent older court-involved students in special education matters, both during periods of incarceration and throughout re-entry. We work with our clients to obtain the special education and transition services they are entitled to under federal and District law, and our individual client representation drives our systemic priorities. Using a variety of legal strategies, we aim to transform the educational landscape for court-involved youth, one case at a time.

As an overview, we spend most of each day working with our clients on the legal matters for which they retained us. We spend time getting to know our clients and their goals, identifying potential barriers to success, developing the case and researching applicable legal claims, and working together to identify programs and services our clients want to obtain through formal or informal legal advocacy. Using a variety of strategies centered on our individual clients, we incorporate direct representation, systemic work and youth-centered advocacy programming to obtain positive outcomes.

Our model is designed to meet the legal needs of older students who are still involved in the juvenile justice system. We integrate education law and criminal law, targeting both enforcement of the individual student's substantive education rights and protection of the liberty interest. Over time, we hope to see a paradigmatic shift where 18- to 22-year-old students are 1) informed of and advocating for their education rights and have access to counsel, if desired, 2) included in the national juvenile justice and special education advocacy movements, 3) receiving appropriate special education services and able to access viable paths to graduation, regardless of incarceration, and 4) experiencing improved educational and life outcomes.

We are so grateful to have received a fellowship through Echoing Green and Open Society Foundation. [SJP co-founder] Sarah [Comeau] and I received the 2013 Black Male Achievement Fellowship, and it enabled us to open the doors to School Justice Project this summer to provide these critical legal services to a group of students that has been perpetually overlooked and underserved. In October, we were awarded a Fair Chance partnership. Fair Chance is a phenomenal organization in D.C. that provides capacity-building services to partner organizations, all of which are local nonprofit organizations serving children and youth. With the 2013 BMA Fellowship and Fair Chance Partnership providing complementary support, Sarah and I aim to build a truly sustainable and scalable legal services model that will generate system-wide reform to address the complex educational and legal issues facing this discrete, older student population.

Prior to forming the School Justice Project, you had an Equal Justice Works fellowship at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. What was that experience like?

After graduating from UVA Law, I received an Equal Justice Works Fellowship, sponsored by Greenberg Traurig. During this two-year fellowship at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, I worked as a special education attorney for youth, ages 18-22, who had been adjudicated delinquent, committed to custody of the D.C. juvenile justice agency, and placed in D.C.'s secure long-term juvenile facility. My office was located at the secure facility, and I spent two years representing my clients, all between the ages of 18-22, during their confinement and throughout transition.

The fellowship was a truly transformative experience. Along with my PDS supervisor and mentor, Jamie Rodriguez, I developed [my project for] the Equal Justice Works Fellowship as a response to the gaps I saw when working as a PDS Law Clerk during my 2L summer. The fellowship aimed to use legal strategies to address persisting denial of special education rights to older youth in the juvenile justice system. For a variety of reasons, the oldest students in the system often experience the most egregious educational deprivations, yet have no real recourse and are largely overlooked. I will forever be indebted to Greenberg Traurig and Equal Justice Works for taking a chance on the fellowship idea, as this legal work is critical. Over the past two years, my clients and I were able to obtain excellent outcomes on both the individual and systemic levels.

While at PDS, I met my amazing SJP co-founder, Sarah Comeau. Sarah had received a J.D. Distinguished Fellowship from American University Washington College of Law. A born litigator, Sarah was representing youth in disciplinary hearings and community status review hearings. During our work together, we were floored by how effective education law could be in the post-commitment context. In the juvenile justice world, so much legal advocacy happens informally. After trial, young people in the juvenile justice system rarely have strong legal hooks to rely on to enforce their rights. Special education law provides a strong legal hook, situated in local and federal law, serving as a welcome reminder that secure confinement does not strip a young person of all his rights. Sarah turned her focus to special education law, and we decided to develop a nontraditional education law practice designed to meet the needs of older youth ages 17-22 who were involved in the juvenile justice and criminal systems. 

What is a typical day like for you?

I wish we had typical days at this point! I transitioned over to SJP at the end of August once my Equal Justice Works Fellowship at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia ended. [Sarah and I] are enjoying the exciting ride and steep learning curve together. Since we began full operations only two months ago, we are still settling into a routine that necessarily balances nonprofit organizational management and staff attorney duties. Although there is no true "typical day" yet, we generally split our time between client meetings, court or administrative hearings, case preparation, and nonprofit management and operations.

Client meetings includes individual meetings with our clients to review their case files, discuss any current issues or concerns they raise, prepare for upcoming hearings, catch up on how things are going, or learn about successes or challenges they choose to share. If our clients are detained or placed in secure facilities or group homes, we attend all transition and discharge meetings, as well as set up individual client meetings at the facilities. We attend all school meetings, including special education meetings, disciplinary meetings, or any other school meeting or event our client requests us to attend. This can range from special education eligibility meetings to basketball games to back-to-school night or student showcase events.

Court and administrative hearings include juvenile delinquency or adult criminal proceedings, which we attend and frequently participate in as the client's special education attorney. We prepare education court reports and sentencing memoranda, working with the client's defense attorney of record to support our client by providing information on his education or transition goals and progress. We often present potential alternatives to incarceration that can be accessed through alternative resources available through the special education or disability services.

Sarah and I spend a lot of time meeting with each other and our clients to prepare for our cases. This includes requesting and analyzing school records, creating case chronologies, developing our theories of the case, researching special education law and potential intersections with other agency law or policy (juvenile justice agencies, criminal law, disability rights, mental health law and policy), and drafting formal and informal legal memoranda and pleadings. These tasks remain constant regardless of whether we are immersed in individual or systemic complaints for special education litigation.

And then, to really pack our days, we usually spend few hours each day working on operations/nonprofit management, which we are definitely still learning a lot about. I'm glad that I took Nonprofit Organizations at UVA Law, though I wish I could take it again now!

What are the biggest challenges you face in your current job?

On an organizational level, it has definitely been challenging to learn how to start, build and manage a nonprofit organization while simultaneously providing substantive individual representation and continuing systemic legal work. We are currently learning to manage the organization and are settling into our work on the managerial side. On the legal side, we are actively involved in individual and systemic litigation. We are also currently conducting legal trainings, and developing our youth outreach program. It's busy, but I love it. My Equal Justice Works Fellowship at PDS ended on a Friday, and my eight clients transferred with me first thing Monday morning. I literally have my dream job, and I feel really lucky — we had a theory of change, so it's time to put my money where my mouth is, I guess. (And time to read up on nonprofit fundraising and development!)

On a larger, programmatic level, one of the biggest challenges is understanding and addressing the general lack of societal support and empathy for our clients. This runs deeper than a discussion about stigma surrounding youth in the juvenile justice system. Rather, our clients experience multi-structural exclusion from national advocacy movements on disability rights, education and juvenile justice reform. The juvenile justice movement targets younger youth and is largely policy-reform based, rather than client-centered. The special education rights movement envisions a more sympathetic group of elementary-age children. We want to call attention to this injustice, as these students often experience the most dire circumstances due to length of court involvement, mobility and interagency communication gaps. By raising attention to their unmet needs, we aim to reshape public sentiment and, over time, policy.

Could you describe your career path? Did you always want to advocate on behalf of children and education? What about it appeals to you?

As the daughter of two public interest lawyers, I grew up passionate about working to eradicate the ubiquitous racial and socioeconomic inequalities. My interest in the achievement gap between races and socioeconomic strata led me to major in government, psychology and sociology at Wesleyan University. Through that interdisciplinary curriculum, I studied the policies and social structures that have perpetuated inequalities in both the education and prison systems. After college, I joined Teach for America, teaching at Excellence Charter School, an all-boys charter school in Brooklyn. Excellence had a longer school year and day than traditional schools and a tested model that had a track record of success. I loved working with my students, their families and my colleagues, and it is no secret how important education is to all facets of young peoples' lives.

I loved teaching but I went to law school to develop different strategies and avenues to use when seeking access to education for all students. My dual interests in education and the juvenile justice system had seamlessly brought me to this point, but I had no idea what the interaction between the two disciplines would look like. At UVA Law, I explored their intersection and the many possibilities available to lawyers interested in working in the child advocacy/juvenile justice field. Through the mentorship of excellent professors and the exemplary legal education I received at UVA Law, I found my niche. My parents (and role models), Eric Blumenson and Eva Nilsen '77, have spent their legal careers using criminal law as a tool to safeguard individual rights. Even as a rookie, it is clear to me that legal advocacy is a powerful tool for reclaiming and reinforcing the promise of education as an equalizer on both the individual and systemic levels.

Were there any courses or clinics at UVA Law that particularly helped prepare you for your career? How so?

Absolutely. Without a doubt, the Child Advocacy Clinic was a formative part of my career. Through the clinic, I gained substantive and practical experience in education law, delinquency issues, juvenile transfer work and policy initiatives. I had the opportunity to work with skilled attorneys and, as a student practitioner, assist with legal representation of young people in education and post-conviction cases. UVA Law also offered courses that prepared me for my career, such as Children and the Law, Issues in Poverty Law, Special Education Law, Professional Responsibility for Public Interest Law, Nonprofit Organizations, and Education Law and Policy. Lastly, I spent a year conducting a directed research project with [former] Professor [Tomiko] Brown-Nagin on disability advocacy and school compliance.

Can you offer any advice to UVA Law students interested in following a similar career path?

The most important advice I have is to spend as much time getting clinical and practical experience as you can and experiment. Seek out many and varied experiences to figure out what you are passionate about, what you care about, and what type of legal work, if any, you like to practice. UVA Law is a great place to do all of that.

Also, I don't think there is one path. It feels weird for me to say that, as I have had a really linear path that brought me to this point. But working with my partner, Sarah, each day and sharing the experiences we have during SJP's startup and every day since, it is clear that there is no one "set" way to arrive at your career. For example, Sarah focused her law school career on international human rights in post-conflict African nations. As her focus shifted nationally to both human rights issues and direct representation, she got a postgraduate fellowship at PDS in hopes of kickstarting a career in indigent defense. Although she saw juvenile conditions of confinement work as a steppingstone to public defense, her experience at PDS ended up spurring something completely different.

Lastly, think outside of the box. Don't take no for an answer. If you are passionate about your career and the type of work you intend to pursue, be creative in seeking out legal opportunities and securing nontraditional employment. Do not be scared to ask for opportunities and keep asking until you get a chance. To take the mantra of Echoing Green: Be Bold.

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