The EdLaw Project
The EdLaw Project is dedicated to ensuring that Massachusetts’ highest risk children receive a quality education and avoid the school-to-prison pipeline. A partnership between the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts and the Committee for Public Counsel Services, Children & Family Law and Youth Advocacy Divisions, the project offers direct advocacy to students facing school exclusion, experiencing ineffective reintegration into the school system following detention or incarceration, receiving inadequate education while in state custody, or struggling with undetected and underserved special needs. Advocacy in these areas, though crucial, is not government funded and thus the Edlaw Project has become the main initiative for the Foundation. EdLaw also engages in a targeted training and mobilization strategy to support court-involved children. We provide training and support to the attorneys throughout the Commonwealth representing children and families in child welfare, delinquency and youthful offender cases to identify and address the education needs of their clients, thereby leading to better legal and life outcomes. Our work focuses on prevention and intervention as a means to divert highly vulnerable children from the school-to-prison pipeline, while improving public safety and saving taxpayers millions of dollars.
Since its formal inception, EdLaw has directly advocated for over 1,500 children to access the education they need to succeed. Last year, the EdLaw staff of four full-time attorneys provided direct legal services to nearly 150 children ranging in age from 6 to 22, with the majority between the ages 12 to 16. Additionally, EdLaw attorneys provided 27 trainings on education rights to over 1,100 participants, including parents, students, lawyers, and youth-serving professionals. They also consulted on over 400 requests for information and technical assistance.
Sam’s court appointed delinquency attorney called EdLaw because Sam was expelled from school and would soon be without any educational services. Sam’s family had requested a special education evaluation prior to his expulsion because of concerns about his academic as well as his emotional well-being. The delinquency attorney was unfamiliar with the laws and regulations around school exclusion and special education. Although there was clear information from the school district’s own psychologist that Sam should qualify for services, the school district denied the request for special education services and at age 15, Sam was expelled with no education options. EdLaw helped the attorney to obtain an independent evaluation for Sam as allowed under federal special education law. Armed with the new evaluation, EdLaw was able to procure much needed special education services for Sam. Sam has started the school year in a new school with appropriate services and as of this writing, has not had any behavioral incidents since.
Kenny is a 13 year old student who came to EdLaw’s attention when he was facing expulsion for an incident involved horseplay at school. The incident was not witnessed by any adults, but the student reported it to her father, who, in turn, called the Middle School headmaster and demanded Kenny’s removal. Kenny is a young boy with a diagnosis of ADHD and a Nonverbal Learning Disability. As a child, he suffered lead poisoning. A Manifestation Determination hearing regarding the incident was conducted to determine the relationship between Kenny’s disability and the disciplinary incident. It was found that Kenny’s actions were a manifestation of his disability, specifically his misinterpretation of social cues. The school district conducted a full reevaluation of Kenny’s needs to determine whether his current school placement was appropriate. The school district concluded that Kenny’s placement needed to be changed to a more restrictive setting. Kenny’s mother disagreed with this finding and refused to sign the new IEP arguing that certain accommodations could be placed in his current program to address any concerns. The school district filed a complaint at the Bureau of Special Education Appeals and the EdLaw Project represented the student in this action. After a comprehensive hearing, the Hearing Officer sided with Kenny, and he was able to remain in his placement with accommodations. Currently, Kenny is an honor roll student and has had no further disciplinary actions.
EdLaw Project Staff
Four attorneys, Marlies Spanjaard, Bryna Williams, Rachel Rosenberg, and Michele Scavongelli currently staff the EdLaw Project. The attorneys work full-time with 100% of their time devoted to the EdLaw Project.
Marlies Spanjaard, Director of Education Advocacy
Ms. Spanjaard is responsible for supervising staff attorneys and interns, making program-wide policy decisions, and cultivating relationships with other individuals and agencies in an effort to promote the Edlaw Project mission. Prior to serving as Director, Ms. Spanjaard gained valuable experience as a staff attorney on the EdLaw Project during which time she represented students in school disciplinary hearings, special education team meetings, and administrative hearings before the Bureau of Special Education Appeals. Marlies has provided trainings on education related issues throughout the state and before a wide variety of audiences including parents, youth workers, students and attorneys. In 2007, Marlies began teaching at Wheelock College as an adjunct instructor in the college’s Juvenile Justice and Youth Advocacy Concentration. She earned her J.D. and her M.S.W. at Washington University Law School and George Warren Brown School of Social Work in St. Louis, MO.
Bryna Williams, Senior Staff Attorney
Ms. Williams joined The EdLaw Project in August, 2006. During her tenure, she has gained broad experience with representing students in the areas of school discipline, special education rights, and access to school. She is primarily responsible for consulting with and supporting attorneys working in the juvenile courts to effectively advocate for their clients in schools, for representing court-involved clients in complicated education matters, and for developing and leading trainings about education rights to present to attorneys, community groups, and child advocates throughout the Commonwealth. She regularly attends community meetings and forums focused on public education and services for marginalized students. During law school, she gained valuable experience in client advocacy through internships with the Public Guardian of Cook County in Chicago and the Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst, Illinois, and as a student clinician at the Loyola Civitas ChildLaw Clinic. Additionally, she served as the managing editor of the Children’s Legal Rights Journal, as the president of her law school’s Public Interest Law Society and, as a volunteer teaching students about their legal rights in the Chicago Public Schools and at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. She earned her A.B. from Washington University in St. Louis in 1998 and her J.D. from Loyola University Chicago School of Law in 2005.
Michele Scavongelli, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius EdLaw Fellow/Staff Attorney
Ms. Scavongelli has been with the EdLaw Project since 2012 when she joined the project as an Equal Justice Works Fellow. Michele graduated Northeastern University School of Law. A recipient of a Rappaport Fellowship at the Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate and a recipient of a Hennessy Fellowship at the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee, Michele brings a wide range of experience to the Project. In addition to serving EdLaw, Michele is on the board of Bottom Line, an organization that is dedicated to helping disadvantaged students get into college and on the board of CASA, an organization that recruits, trains and supports volunteers who advocate for abused and neglected children before the Suffolk County.
Jessica Rubin-Willis, Skadden Fellow/Staff Attorney
Ms. Rubin-Willis joined the EdLaw Project as a Skadden Fellow in October 2014. Her project focuses on ensuring that young children in the child welfare system have access to Early Intervention and preschool services that will give them a strong foundation for school success. Jessica graduated from New York University School of Law in 2012. After law school, Jessica worked at Advocates for Children of New York, where she provided direct representation to obtain educational services for low-income preschool children and conducted trainings for parents and preschool providers across New York City. She also spent a year serving as a law clerk in the Eastern District of New York before coming to EdLaw. Jessica gained child welfare experience during law school as a student in NYU’s Family Defense Clinic and as a summer intern in the Children and Family Law (CAFL) Division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services in Boston. Jessica earned her B.A. from Harvard University in 2006 and worked for several years at Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association before attending law school.
For more information on the EdLaw Project, please contact Marlies Spanjaard, Director of Education Advocacy, 617.910.5841 or firstname.lastname@example.org.