As a schoolteacher in a small town in Mississippi, Mary Merkel ’23 saw that at-risk students need strong advocates outside the classroom just as much as they do inside of it. As the University of Virginia School of Law’s latest Equal Justice Works Fellow, she will be that advocate for special education students in the Bronx, under the sponsorship of law firm Greenberg Traurig.

Through the two-year fellowship, which provides a full salary, recipients design their own project or join an established fellowship program dedicated to serving a specific population or addressing an unmet legal need.

Merkel said her experiences in Greenwood, Mississippi, inspired the project she designed for her upcoming work.

The town was “a really great place with really wonderful people, who are doing some great work against tough odds,” Merkel said. “But public schools are underfunded. I knew nothing about special education even though I had maybe three to five students with learning disabilities every year. Because we were underfunded, we had one special education teacher who would pull the kids for maybe 30 minutes a few times a week, and that was really the extent of any kind of services they got.”

Merkel will now bring that life experience to bear on her work at The Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit organization that provides both legal and social services to the 1.4 million residents of the New York City borough. With more than 500 staff members, the organization aims to address both the causes and consequences of involvement in the justice system.

Of those 500 employees, currently just one — Crystal Baker-Burr — is an education attorney. Her work, The Education Project, falls under the organization’s Adolescent Defense Project, and Baker-Burr helped Merkel design the proposed project she submitted to the EJW Fellowship program.

Under Baker-Burr’s supervision, Merkel will spend the next two years providing direct representation to adolescents with disabilities — including some who are incarcerated at Rikers Island – and representing them and their parents through accommodations and suspension hearings.

Last summer, Merkel worked on her first school suspension hearing while interning at Advocates for Children, another New York City nonprofit. The internship confirmed her belief that suspensions are not the best answer.

“The student was being bullied for being different, and the teachers and administration were not being responsive to her needs,” Merkel said of the experience. “Oftentimes the suspension is a result of students not getting what they need in the classroom. Every kid legally has the right to learn, and when you don’t meet their needs on the front end, that’s when you have kids acting up — because they’re not understanding their work, they can’t see the board, they’re being bullied — something is causing them to not get their work done.”

At UVA Law, the Charlottesville native is the president of the Public Interest Law Association, the senior technical editor of the Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law, the intake team co-leader at the Virginia Innocence Project Pro Bono Clinic, and the former treasurer of Child Advocacy Research and Education.

She is also active in the Student Bar Association and has completed pro bono work for Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, the Lynchburg Public Defender, the Domestic Violence Project, the Virginia Law in Prison Project and the Local Education Policy Project.

As part of the Program in Law and Public Service, Merkel was one of 34 fellows in the class of 2023 who were able to tailor their curriculum and receive additional mentorship and training to prepare for a career in public service. She credits the Civil Rights Clinic and the Holistic Youth Defense Clinic with giving her real-world experience and helping her narrow her interest to providing direct representation to clients.

Director of Public Service Amanda Yale said Merkel’s dedication to disadvantaged youth, coupled with her years of teaching and background in criminal law, combine to make her well-suited to represent juveniles in the Bronx.

“Poor Black and brown children are the most vulnerable to the criminal justice system. Add in emotional and learning disabilities, and the cards stacked against them are even higher,” Yale said. “These kids need advocates like Mary to help them navigate the law and work toward better life outcomes. She is a true leader in our public service community, and I am confident she will make her mark in this field.”

Merkel earned a bachelor’s degree in public policy leadership from the University of Mississippi in 2015 and taught school through the Teach For America program. She is the 12th Equal Justice Works Fellow from UVA Law.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.