Youth Advocacy Foundation YAF

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.

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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

Three attorneys, Marlies Spanjaard, Michele Scavongelli, and Erin Hehn O’Sullivan 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.

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.

Erin Hehn O’Sullivan, Staff Attorney

Ms. O’Sullivan started with the EdLaw Project in April 2017.  Prior to coming to EdLaw, Ms. O’Sullivan was a Staff Attorney at the Disability Law Center where she represented people with disabilities in a variety of matters but focusing on special education.  She also conducted special education trainings, investigations of abuse and neglect of students with disabilities, and monitored community residences for clients of DDS.  Prior to working at the Disability Law Center, Ms. O’Sullivan worked as a Trial Attorney at the Children and Family Law (CAFL) Division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services in Worcester.  While at CAFL, she represented children and parents involved in the juvenile court either through the child welfare system or through Child Requiring Assistance (CRA) Petitions.  She earned her J.D. from Villanova University School of Law and her B.A. from College of the Holy Cross.



For more information on the EdLaw Project, please contact Marlies Spanjaard, Director of Education Advocacy, 617.910.5841 or