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LAJC Asks Richmond Schools to End Police MOU

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In solidarity with Richmond youth and as part of our multi-year effort to end school pushout and the school-to-prison pipeline, today the Legal Aid Justice Center sent a letter to the City of Richmond School Board and the Richmond Public Schools administration asking that Richmond divest from its School Resource Officer program and invest in holistic supports for all students. During the summer of 2020, RPS convened two listening sessions with students and community partners, respectively, to discuss the role of police in RPS. In both sessions, students and community members spoke of the harm school policing perpetuates in public schools and asked that RPS end its use of SROs. The School Board entered a review period to consider the role of SROs in Richmond schools, and we now ask the School Board to complete its review and ultimately to divest from school policing. As outlined in our letter, research shows that removing SROs from schools is beneficial for all students, but particularly for students of color, students with disabilities, and students who identify as LGBTQ+.

Today’s letter is another step in the long effort to end school pushout in Richmond and to invest in holistic, evidence-based supports for Richmond youth. In 2016, RPS students represented by LAJC filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights outlining troubling school policing practices and discipline disparities along the lines of race and disability. For more information about school policing in Virginia, visit our Youth Justice Program page.

Supporting Police-Free Schools in Alexandria

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Today LAJC sent a letter to the Alexandria (Va) City Council in support of student demands for a police-free Alexandria City Public School system. Youth advocates at our longtime partner organization, Tenants and Workers United, have petitioned the City Council for a budget amendment that would divest nearly $800,000 from Alexandria’s School Resource Officer (SRO) program and invest those dollars into student and community mental health supports. For more information on LAJC’s advocacy on school policing, visit our school policing page.

Ending Pushout in Richmond Public Schools

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After years of advocacy by the Legal Aid Justice Center and numerous other dedicated community partners, community members, and youth, we celebrate a substantial victory on the road to ending school pushout in Richmond Public Schools. Monday’s unanimous vote by the City of Richmond School Board in support of a revised Student Code of Responsible Ethics, or “SCORE,” affirms the need for a culture change regarding school disciplinary practices.

The new draft of SCORE, if implemented appropriately, should reduce the number of students being suspended out of school for minor behaviors, in line with the Virginia Board of Education’s Model Guidance for Positive and Preventative Code of Student Conduct Policy and Alternatives to Suspension. The new draft also removes mandatory reassignment to alternative education placements for children who are charged with certain legal offenses, opening the door for RPS to re-evaluate its system for alternative school placements and to develop additional policies designed to keep children in their home school.

While both of these changes are an important step in a long road to ending school pushout in RPS, there is more work to be done, including continued edits to SCORE.

RPS must ensure these changes and the philosophy underscoring them are fully communicated to principals and staff: school removal is not an effective, supportive, or restorative approach to discipline. The policy changes in the SCORE must pave the way for culture change in every school—whether virtual or in-person. We also hope the ongoing conversation about school pushout will allow RPS to implement more alternatives to exclusion, including an evidence-based restorative justice program across all schools. The current program does not invest an appropriate amount of resources, engagement, or logistical support to make a significant change in the city’s long history of school pushout.

Most important, RPS must engage authentically with the families most affected by school discipline policies as it continues to examine school pushout. As so many extraordinary RPS students have demonstrated this summer and fall, our youth can and should lead the way.

This victory is the result of tireless work by so many. We celebrate today, and will continue the work tomorrow.  

VA Understaffs Positions Critical to Student Safety

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contacts
Patrick Getlein
Senior Vice President
The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis
patrick@thecommonwealthinstitute.org
804-396-2051 x103

Rachael Deane
Legal Director, JustChildren Program
Legal Aid Justice Center
rachael@justice4all.org
804-521-7304

Virginia Understaffs Positions Critical to Student Safety While Student Enrollment Grows

RICHMOND, VA, August 20, 2018 — Staffing in Virginia’s K-12 schools falls far short of recommended benchmarks for school counselors, social workers, psychologists, and nurses, according to a new report from The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis and the Legal Aid Justice Center. Decreases in staffing and a growing student population have left counselors, social workers, psychologists, and nurses with increased caseloads and administrative responsibilities and less time for direct student support.

The report notes that student enrollment in Virginia’s schools has grown by more than 57,000
students since 2008, while overall school support staff positions decreased by 2,356 over the
same decade. School counselor caseloads increased nearly 30 percent — from 300 students in
2007-2008 to 385 students in 2015-2016. School counselors, social workers, psychologists, and
nurses play essential roles in meeting student mental health needs, keeping all students safe
and engaged, and helping students achieve academic and career success.

“These professionals provide vital services, including mental health care, and contribute to a
positive school climate in which all members of the school community feel safe,” said Rachael
Deane, Legal Director of the JustChildren Program at the Legal Aid Justice Center. “But a lack
of resources for these positions means we’re asking them to do more with less. Investing in
adequate staffing improves academic and health outcomes for all students.”

The report details the specialized services provided by school counselors, social workers,
psychologists, and nurses, including their important role in cultivating student safety. These
school professionals help to meet the mental health needs of students, connect students and
families with wraparound services, implement school-wide positive behavior support, reduce the
use of exclusionary discipline, and assist students with academic and career development.

“School counselors, social workers, psychologists, and nurses have an important impact on
student success. As their responsibilities increase that impact could increase as well,” says
Chris Duncombe, senior policy analyst with The Commonwealth Institute. “But only if schools
have sufficient staffing.”

The report recommends that Virginia lawmakers adopt proposals by the Virginia Board of
Education to amend Virginia’s Standards of Quality and establish higher staffing standards for
these positions. In 2017, the Virginia Board of Education recommended caseloads of one
school counselor for every 250 students, one school social worker for every 1,000 students, one
school psychologist for every 1,000 students, and one school nurse for every 550 students.

Read the report here.

The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis provides credible, independent, and accessible
information and analyses of fiscal and economic issues with particular attention to the impacts
on low- and moderate-income persons. Our products inform fiscal and budget policy debates
and contribute to sound decisions that improve the well-being of individuals, communities and
Virginia as a whole. 

The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) fights injustice in the lives of individual Virginians while
rooting out exploitative policies and practices that keep people in poverty. LAJC uses impact
litigation, community organizing, and policy advocacy to solve urgent problems in areas
such as housing, education, civil rights, immigration, healthcare and consumer finance.
LAJC’s primary service areas are Charlottesville, Northern Virginia, Richmond and
Petersburg, but the effects of their work are felt statewide.

School Safety Requires Student Supports

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 

CONTACT:
Rachael Deane
Legal Director, JustChildren Program, Legal Aid Justice Center
804-521-7304 | rachael@justice4all.org

Richmond, Virginia (July 6, 2018) – In advance of the July 11 meeting of the Virginia House Select Committee on School Safety, the Legal Aid Justice Center and 23 advocacy organizations are calling upon the General Assembly and Governor Northam to address the Commonwealth’s school safety concerns by investing in supports and services to meet the needs and improve the health and welfare of students well before behavior reaches a point of violence. Rather than looking toward “hardening” our schools, Virginia policymakers must prioritize supporting and strengthening our students.

In a letter today to the House Select Committee on School Safety, which was also delivered to members of the House Appropriations Committee and Governor Northam, LAJC and its partner organizations offered detailed recommendations around four main school safety policies:

  • Increasing school support staff, such as school counselors and nurses;
  • Improving school policing accountability through tailored, mandated training for school resource officers on working with children and youth;
  • Investing in positive school discipline and school climate programs and methods, such as restorative practices; and
  • Broadening the accessibility of supports and services under relevant funding streams, such as the Children’s Services Act.

“Rather than focusing solely on what makes school buildings more secure, policymakers should be asking what makes our students safer, healthier, and more connected to their education, and we already know many of the answers,” said Rachael Deane, Legal Director of the JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center. “School counselors, nurses, psychologists, and other support staff play an irreplaceable role in students’ overall well-being. It’s time to lift the state’s funding cap on these positions and to invest in prevention, positive intervention, mental health, and trauma-informed supports. These approaches dramatically improve safety not just for students, but also for teachers, staff, and communities as a whole.”

 

RISE for Youth to Become Independent Organization

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact:
Tim Wallace, Director of Development, Legal Aid Justice Center
434-529-1853
twallace@justice4all.org

Valerie Slater, RISE for Youth Campaign Coordinator
804-709-8780
valerie@justice4all.org

Richmond, Va., June 12, 2018 — After three years housed within the JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC), RISE (Re-Invest in Supportive Environments) for Youth (RISE) will take formal steps over the summer toward becoming an independent organization. RISE for Youth is a non-partisan campaign in support of community alternatives to youth incarceration. Since its launch in 2015, RISE has been an active and influential voice for juvenile justice reform in Virginia. Placing youth activism at the center of its efforts, the campaign has successfully advocated for both the closure of the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center and the reinvestment of the funds used to operate that facility into community-based services while opposing the building of new juvenile prisons. Valerie Slater, RISE for Youth Campaign Coordinator and a recent fellow of the National Juvenile Justice Network’s Youth Justice Leadership Institute, will take the helm as Executive Director of the new organization, with support from juvenile justice organizers Rebecca Keel as Policy Director and James Braxton as Strategic Engagement Director.

During the transition, RISE will operate under fiscal sponsorship until the campaign core is incorporated. LAJC Executive Director Mary Bauer said, “We’re thrilled that RISE has grown to the point that this transition is possible. The campaign has achieved unprecedented youth-led victories in juvenile justice reform over the past three years. It is deeply gratifying to see this investment result in the creation of a new, sustainable community-based asset.”

After transitioning into fiscal sponsorship, RISE for Youth will continue engaging community members and justice-involved youth to plan the next phase of its juvenile justice advocacy work. Ms. Slater explained, “Years of community engagement, educating and activating allies, and local and state level legislative advocacy have helped put our communities’ voices front and center, making our opposition to the outdated youth prison model and support for community-based alternatives seen, heard, and accounted for. This next step will help RISE for Youth grow and adapt to allow for even greater community collaboration in our work.”

After the transition, LAJC will continue to push for juvenile justice reform in Virginia. Rachael Deane, Legal Director of the JustChildren Program, said, “JustChildren has a twenty-year history of successful advocacy on behalf of low-income and justice-involved youth. We look forward to continuing that advocacy and to partnering with RISE for Youth to ensure that Virginia continues to invest in proven, community-based alternatives to youth incarceration.”

LAJC Celebrates School Discipline Reform Legislation

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                                                                                         

CONTACT:
Amy Woolard
Attorney and Policy Coordinator, Legal Aid Justice Center
434-529-1846 | amy@justice4all.org

LAJC Celebrates Enactment of School Discipline Reform Legislation

Richmond, Virginia (June 1, 2018) – After a years-long effort by its JustChildren Program to stem Virginia’s school suspension crisis, the Legal Aid Justice Center celebrates the enactment of two major pieces of school discipline reform legislation, which await Governor Northam’s pen during a ceremonial bill signing this afternoon. The new laws will take effect on July 1, making Virginia one of the first states in the nation to enact statewide school discipline reform.

Senate Bill 170, patroned by Senator Bill Stanley, will dramatically curb suspensions of young students in grades pre-K through third grade by capping most suspensions of children in these grades at no more than three days. House Bill 1600, patroned by Delegate Jeff Bourne and chief co-patroned by Delegate Dickie Bell, narrows the length of most long-term suspensions to a period of 11-45 school days, down from the current span of 11-364 calendar days. Both bills passed the General Assembly with strong bipartisan votes.

“These laws are a powerful first step toward reducing school pushout and improving school climate for Virginia’s children,” said Amy Woolard, staff attorney and policy coordinator with the Legal Aid Justice Center. “We are pleased Virginia has recognized that exclusionary discipline harms students and that there is a better way. To that end, we are also grateful that the two-year budget recently passed by the General Assembly includes an additional $500,000 per year for implementing positive behavior supports in schools across the Commonwealth.”

Last fall, the Legal Aid Justice Center released a report showing that Virginia schools issued over 131,500 out-of-school suspensions to over 70,000 individual students during the 2015-16 school year, including over 17,300 short-term suspensions to children in pre-K through third grade alone. The vast majority of suspensions were issued for non-violent, relatively minor misbehavior.

Preserving Access to Education for Immigrant Students

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CONTACT:
Becky Wolozin
Attorney, Legal Aid Justice Center
703-720-5606 | becky@justice4all.org

Falls Church, Virginia (January 8, 2018) – In response to growing school enrollment barriers faced by immigrant students across Virginia, the Legal Aid Justice Center has released a practice guide, Dream Big: Education for Immigrant Students and Children of Immigrants. The guide clarifies the responsibilities of the Commonwealth’s school divisions to provide tuition-free education to all students, regardless of immigration status. It also outlines general school enrollment principles under Virginia law and answers common questions faced by attorneys and service providers who are assisting immigrant families.

“Virginia schools should be welcoming, supportive, and safe places for all students,” said Becky Wolozin, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center and author of the practice guide. “Unfortunately, immigrant children and children who have immigrant parents often face unnecessary barriers to enrolling in school and obtaining the services they need to learn. We hope this guide will assist advocates in using state and federal protections to ensure that all children in Virginia have the opportunity to learn.”

The guide addresses some of the most common barriers to school enrollment faced by immigrant children, including unnecessary and onerous enrollment documentation requirements and family instability due to deportation. Using a question and answer format, the guide clarifies school division responsibilities to immigrant students and families. State and federal law protect the right of all children to attend public school, regardless of immigration status. 

Resources

Dream Big: Education for Immigrant Students and Children of Immigrants

LAJC Joins New Education Civil Rights Alliance

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT:
Rachael Deane
Legal Director, JustChildren Program
804-521-7304 | rachael@justice4all.org

Legal Aid Justice Center Joins the Education Civil Rights Alliance to Fight Back Against Civil Rights Violations Threatening Students

Charlottesville, Virginia (November 2, 2017) — In the face of increasing threats to student civil rights in Virginia and throughout the nation, Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) has joined with more than two dozen leading education and civil rights groups to launch the Education Civil Rights Alliance (ECR Alliance).

Schools should serve, educate, empower and be safe for all students, yet all across America today, far too many students face bullying and other barriers to education based on their race, religion, national origin, gender identity, disability, first language, or sexual orientation. Immigrant children continue to be illegally denied the right to enroll in school. Increasingly divisive and hateful rhetoric and growing anti-Muslim and White nationalist sentiment only serve to exacerbate the threats to already marginalized vulnerable students.

“We are pleased to join the Education Civil Rights Alliance and to stand against discrimination and hate in Virginia’s schools,” said Rachael Deane, Legal Director of LAJC’s JustChildren program. “All students in Virginia have the right to education in safe schools, and we will continue to work with students and parents across the Commonwealth to ensure that all children have the protection, services, and supports they need to be successful in school and in their communities.”

The ECR Alliance will ensure the civil rights of marginalized students remain protected by providing resources to help parents, educators, school districts, and advocates protect students’ civil rights, supporting enforcement actions at the state and local level when schools districts and states fail to do so, working to raise public awareness of these challenges facing students, and serving as a deterrent to discriminatory and illegal behavior.

This alliance includes powerful community groups, experienced educators, the nation’s largest teachers unions, accomplished legal organizations, influential national associations, civil rights organizations, and government agencies committed to ensuring that schools serve, educate, empower and are safe for all students. Members of the ECR Alliance have extensive experience in, and a deep commitment to, protecting students’ civil rights.

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New Report: Suspended Progress 2017

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE             

CONTACT:
Amy Woolard
Attorney and Policy Coordinator, Legal Aid Justice Center
434-529-1846 | amy@justice4all.org

New Report: Virginia’s School Suspension Crisis Worsened in 2015-16

Charlottesville, Virginia (October 17, 2017) – Virginia schools continue to suspend students at an alarming rate—an ongoing crisis that harms students of color, students with disabilities, and elementary school students most profoundly.   

An update to the Legal Aid Justice Center’s Suspended Progress report reveals that, during the 2015-16 school year, Virginia schools issued over 131,500 out-of-school suspensions to over 70,000 students, marking an increase in the Commonwealth’s suspension rate after four years of a downward trend.

In this update to Suspended Progress, the Legal Aid Justice Center finds that:

  • Students with disabilities were suspended at rates 2.6 times higher than that of non-disabled students; African-American students were suspended at rates 3.8 times higher than Hispanic and white students.
  • The short-term suspension rate increased in 2015-2016 after years of significant steady decline.
  • Virginia schools continue to suspend very young students at an astonishing rate, issuing over 17,300 short-term suspensions and at least 93 long-term suspensions just to children in pre-K through 3rd
  • The vast majority of all suspensions were issued for minor offenses, with approximately two-thirds of all suspensions issued for behavior offenses like: possession of cell phones, minor insubordination, disrespect, and using inappropriate language.

“Exclusionary discipline is myopic and harmful—we cannot continue to use access to education as a punishment for student conduct and expect positive results from either students or schools,” said Amy Woolard, Legal Aid Justice Center attorney and author of the report. “When children are suspended from school, they are more likely to experience academic failure, drop out of school, have substance abuse issues, have mental health needs, and become involved in the justice system.”

The report points to proven alternatives to school exclusion that keep students connected to academics and provide tailored interventions when needed. Those alternatives include restorative practices, multi-tiered systems of supports, and social and emotional learning programs as positive steps local schools can implement in lieu of exclusion.

The Legal Aid Justice Center’s report provides policymakers with immediate steps to take during the 2018 General Assembly session to begin to reverse this crisis. It also offers local school boards and communities a framework for ensuring student codes of conduct promote positive school climate and keep students on track toward graduation. “The good news is we know what works better for students and for schools,” said Woolard. “Alternatives to exclusion like restorative practices emphasize accountability while strengthening students’ relationship to their education, their teachers and administrators, and their peers.”

To read the report, visit: www.justice4all.org/suspension.

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About the Legal Aid Justice Center

The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) fights injustice in the lives of individual Virginians while rooting out exploitative policies and practices that keep people in poverty. LAJC uses impact litigation, community organizing, and policy advocacy to solve urgent problems in areas such as housing, education, civil rights, immigration, healthcare and consumer finance. LAJC’s primary service areas are Charlottesville, Northern Virginia, Richmond and Petersburg, but the effects of their work are felt statewide.

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