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By Jenny WhalenApril 4, 2014
When the possibility of suspension or expulsion threatens to disrupt a Michigan student's education, that student has no right to appointed counsel, which makes the Student Representation Project's (SRP) advocacy efforts that much more significant.
Launched by a trio of University of Michigan Law School students in March 2013, SRP is a dual effort on the part of law students and peers in the U-M School of Social Work to train students to advocate on behalf of public school students who are facing suspension or expulsion at their school disciplinary hearings and, through campus events, to raise awareness of institutional threats to educational opportunities for low-income children.
"We're people who are passionate about young people and public defense," said 1L Jessica Gingold. "It is important for social workers to build their advocacy skills and for lawyers to learn to navigate the resources that youth need. We cross-pollinate and strengthen each other's work through this project."
With guidance from the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan, SRP has trained 16 advocates and led two disciplinary hearings to date, the most recent of which won a high school senior facing a graduation-delaying suspension the right to return to class.
"We know we won't always have the result we want, but we're optimistic," said 3L and SRP founding member Gabriel Newland. "Attending the hearings also serves an educational purpose for the district. We talk about reports from the federal government about racial discrimination in school discipline, read the state's letter on the overuse of suspension and expulsion in schools, and bring character witnesses on behalf of the student to give the district pause and consider an alternative to expulsion."
The group works to share a similar message through the events it organizes and promotes on campus.
"It's been really rewarding to raise awareness through events at the Law School and I would like to see the program expand to include students from the Ford School, Ross School of Business, School of Education, and others," said 2L Maria Litsakis, who helped found SRP with Newland and 3L Sally Larsen. "I'm excited about the progress made this year, but there is so much left to do."
Gingold echoed this sentiment, adding that while the group's small size has allowed it to hone its skills and knowledge in the realm of school discipline, members are ready to expand and get more involved.
"This is the type of work you learn best by doing," Gingold said. "We're learning together and building a network of experienced advocates. Young people enter these hearings with no representation and no knowledge of due process or their rights. We are able to work with the students one-on-one and empower parents as advocates to make sure their voices are heard."
An aspiring public defender, Newland calls his work with the project "one of the more meaningful experiences I've had in law school."
"Doing trial advocacy work, being in clinics, and taking classes on education law and policy, serving as a hearing advocate was a final exam of sorts," Newland added. "These are real students and our work has a real impact."
SRP Board (Pictured above L to R): Marquita Davis, 1L; Jessica Gingold, 1L; Maria Litsakis, 2L; Emma Kornfeld, School of Social Work; Sally Larsen, 3L.
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