Penn students have the chance to be there for the best times in the lives of Philadelphia public school students. But a few have chosen to help with some of the worst.
Parents of public school students can call the The School Discipline Advocacy Service which pairs law students from Penn, Temple and Drexel universities to act as pro-bono advocates to help them wade through the disciplinary process in the school district.
“In general, we advocate for families,” Penn Law student and SDAS Lead Advocate Dorian Simmons said. “Families just want someone to stand next to them and say ‘here’s what’s going to happen’ so they feel supported.”
Penn Law student and SDAS Chair at Penn Richard Shephard said that the advocates work to ensure families know their rights at the hearings. “These hearings without proper checks being implemented could be a steamroll process,” he said.
Families can call their own witnesses, make arguments and cross examine the witnesses the district presents, according to the due process requirements in the Code of Student Conduct for 2014-2015. Shephard said that the advocates’ familiarity with both the procedures and many of the people involved make for a smooth process.
Deputy Chief of the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities Rachel Holzman said the goal of the hearings is to bring out as much information as possible to come to the best decision.
The School District of Philadelphia is receptive to the work that SDAS does, even distributing materials about the project to students when they are notified of their hearings.
“I think we keep increasing our collaboration,” Holzman said. In January, SDAS leaders and their mentor David Lapp, an attorney from the Education Law Center, met with Holzman so that both sides could discuss issues they were having.
“We try to work on anything we can to get a better result,” she said.
SDAS advises families on cases that involve potential expulsions, suspensions or transfers, and its focus is the best outcome for each individual case. Many of the cases are assigned geographically, so Penn Law students would take cases from around the West Philadelphia area.
Simmons said the first question to the family is what they want to get out of the hearing, which could be a lesser punishment, leaving the school or just avoiding a blemish on the student’s record.
Success can be a tough thing to measure because sometimes the outcomes are the lesser of two evils. He described a recent case with a middle school student who was upset with the prospect of being transferred and separated from her friends — to her there wasn’t much of a difference between being expelled or transferred.
“Ultimately we’re doing it for the family,” Shephard said. “I want the family to be happy we were there and feel like we did what we could do.”
SDAS, previously known as Students for Students, began five years ago by a group of Temple Law students at a time when the district had strict “zero tolerance” discipline policies in effect.
Although the policies were scaled back in 2012 and expulsions became less frequent, SDAS has continued to grow. They expect to have more than 100 cases for this academic year compared to just 10 cases in their first year, reflective of the project’s increased presence in Philadelphia. A few months ago, Drexel law students joined the project and students from Villanova University are interested in getting involved, Shephard said. Currently, there are about 25 Penn Law students in the project.
Simmons, a former New York City teacher through Teach for America, said SDAS was a way for him to use his experience in the classroom in work that will prepare him to be a lawyer. “I’ve had a lot of good experiences with families who have said ‘if we didn’t have someone there, we wouldn’t have known what to do,’” he said.
Penn Law students have a 70-hour pro-bono requirement, so Simmons said that many people who used to be teachers or were involved in education often find their way to SDAS.
While the law students cannot act as lawyers or give any legal advice, the advocates work on a volunteer basis to counsel the family and student through the process from before the hearing to what comes after — whether that is looking to find a new school or giving them information about other services available, Simmons said.
“That follow-up part really creates a positive relationship. Then they see it’s not just about the hearings themselves, but more about a supportive network where families feel like they are getting what they deserve out of the whole educational process,” he said.
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