Archive for the ‘JustChildren Program’ Category

Budget Includes Big Wins for Low-Income Virginians

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Nearly three months after the close of the 2018 General Assembly Regular Session, Governor Northam signed the 2018-2020 biennial budget bill, which most notably included the necessary framework for the Commonwealth to expand its Medicaid program in order to cover nearly 400,000 currently uninsured low-income Virginians. The Medicaid Expansion advocacy effort has spanned 5 years, three administrations, and several different iterations of the General Assembly, but one constant over that time period has been the united front of advocates–individuals and organizations across the spectrum–who continued to fight long and hard for this moment. LAJC is proud to have worked as a partner in the Healthcare for All Virginians coalition, alongside our friends at The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis and the Virginia Poverty Law Center (thank you, Jill Hanken!) as we fought for the healthcare needs of our clients. 

The main provisions of the expansion will come into effect on January 1, 2019, but the state has already posted more information on the ins and outs of the new coverage categories on its CoverVa website here.

Medicaid Expansion is a huge victory, and deservedly in the spotlight as the headliner of the state’s new budget, but LAJC also advocated for many other budget reforms, many of which were realized in meaningful ways:

Children’s Mental Health:

We successfully advocated alongside our partners at Voices for Virginia’s Children to make sure that children were included in the approved proposal to invest $7 million to establish a statewide system of alternative transportation for children and adults under a Temporary Detention Order (TDO). Currently, after patients have been evaluated and found to be in need of involuntary inpatient treatment, they are transported to treatment facilities by law enforcement, which includes shackling and being placed in a police cruiser. The new funding will allow Virginia to develop treatment-focused alternative transportation options that can decriminalize what can be a traumatic experience for patients who are already experiencing trauma. LAJC has worked with several very young clients, for example (ages 7 and 9) who, because of no other options, were shackled and taken to the hospital by law enforcement. One of these children had just been removed from his family by social services and seen his own father arrested–his only other experience with police at that point. Providing options in appropriate cases can help patients, families, and even law enforcement provide appropriate, safe care while using the patient’s own therapeutic needs as a guiding principle, which follows best practices in mental health treatment.

K-12 Public Education:

The biennial budget’s largest K-12 investment went to rebenchmarking our overall spending, which the General Assembly must do on a set schedule. It’s critical to underscore that rebenchmarking in and of itself DOES NOT provide the full and necessary investments in our Standards of Quality to assure all children across the state are receiving a high-quality education. We have a long way to go, and LAJC will continue to advocate, using all of our tools, to assure our K-12 system is adequately funded. Even so, the new budget did contain several new pieces of funding for policy proposals on our legislative agenda this year:

1. We successfully advocated for a one-percent increase (to 14% from 13%) to the “At-risk Add-on” range, a funding stream that provides additional dollars to local school divisions, measured in relation to the number of economically disadvantaged students attending in the division. Increasing the high end of the range will help some of our most under-funded school divisions (several of which are in our practice areas) provide more funding to students in need. Our goal for the year, in collaboration with our partners in the Alliance for Virginia’s Students, was to raise this threshold to somewhere between 20% to 25%; while we will accept the incremental bump as a win, we will continue to push for increases in funding that prioritize areas of poverty in the Commonwealth.

2. Through advocacy with both the Governor’s office and the General Assembly, we successfully advocated for a $1 million increase in funding for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a framework that helps to reduce the use of school suspension and expulsion by focusing on prevention, improving school climate, and tailoring higher-level interventions to the specific needs and circumstances of students with more challenging behavior issues. Nearly seven years ago, LAJC led the way in advocating for the initial line-item inclusion of PBIS in the budget, and this year’s budget addition represents the largest increase in the program since its inception. And we will continue our advocacy to create and improve more alternatives to suspension and expulsion–read more about our recommendations, which include things like restorative practices and social and emotional learning, in our Suspended Progress reports.

Juvenile Justice:

We successfully defended against a proposal initially put forth by the House of Delegates to build a new 156-bed facility at the old Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center site, which would have put an exceptionally large youth prison back in a remote location that has a terrible history of unsafe, harsh youth incarceration, and placed community alternative funds in great jeopardy. The General Assembly instead approved pieces of a plan put forth by the Northam administration to build a 60-bed facility in Isle of Wight, Virginia, and lay some initial groundwork for planning a to-be-determined Central Virginia facility to replace Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center. We will continue to advocate for the decarceration of youth, and to work hard on reforming our juvenile justice system to stop the flow of young people further into the juvenile justice and adult criminal justice systems. 

What’s Next:

Just as one session ends, it seems preparation for the next year’s session begins. Stay tuned for more information on LAJC’s 2019 legislative advocacy agenda over the next few months. We’ll be continuing to work on issues like reforming the court debt process, increasing education equity and education funding, improving school discipline and reducing school exclusion, protecting immigrant communities, reducing evictions, and assuring low-income Virginians are able to achieve economic security. If you’d like to become involved in our legislative and administrative advocacy, please contact LAJC Attorney and Policy Coordinator Amy Woolard at amy@justice4all.org. You can also sign up for our email alerts here.

 

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.

2018 Legislative Session Wrap Up

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The 2018 Virginia legislative regular session came to a close this month on March 10, but reached its conclusion without the General Assembly passing a biennial budget for 2018-2020.  The main issue preventing agreement on the budget was whether or not Virginia will opt into federal funding to expand our Medicaid program to cover the three to four hundred thousand uninsured Virginians living in poverty who are currently ineligible for any affordable quality health plan. While Governor Northam and a majority of the House of Delegates agreed on a plan to move forward with expanding coverage, Senate Republicans did not, and the budget bills did not move forward.

Still, Virginia can only operate with an approved budget, so Governor Northam has called a Special Session for April 11th, at which point legislators will return to Richmond and try again to come to an agreement on funding priorities. LAJC continues to unequivocally support expanding Medicaid (or a sincerely similar plan) to ensure health care coverage access for the 400,000 Virginians who are cut off from being able to access critical basic care. We are members of the Healthcare for All Virginians coalition, and stand in support with the coalition’s work.

The Reconvened or “Veto” session is scheduled for April 18th, at which point the General Assembly will deal with any amendments to bills from the Governor and other matters. Below you’ll find some highlights of our legislative session work:

Educate Every Child:
SB 170 (Stanley): Our effort to dramatically curb suspensions of young students in grades pre-K through third grade is on its way to Governor Northam’s desk, coming out of both the Senate and House on very strong votes. The bill caps most all suspensions of children in these grades at no more than three days. During the 2015-2016 school year, Virginia schools doled out more than 17,300 suspensions just in these early years. We’re grateful to our bipartisan patrons and champions, especially Senators Stanley, McClellan, Locke, and Dunnavant for their strong advocacy.
 
HB1600 (Bourne) is also awaiting Governor Northam’s pen, passing out of the legislature on similarly strong votes. This bipartisan bill, chief co-patroned by Del. Dickie Bell, narrows the length of most all long-term suspensions to a period of 11-45 days, down from its current span of 11-364 days, in an effort to reduce school pushout.
 
Read more on the data and policy behind these bills in our Suspended Progress 2017 report released last September. Also stay tuned for more analysis of implementing these new laws, via practice advisories and follow-up reporting in the next edition of Suspended Progress.
 
K-12 Budget Amendments: Like everyone in the Commonwealth, we’re eager to see the biennial budget process resolved. If the legislature approves a plan to accept federal funding to increase health care access, we anticipate at least some of those savings to be invested in K-12 education. Both the House and Senate have indicated their interest in directing some funds toward students and teachers, though their respective approaches differ. We’ve advocated for increases in the funding stream directed towards economically disadvantaged students (the “At-Risk Add-on”) and funds for schools to implement alternatives to suspensions and expulsions. We’ll update you all after the Special Session to outline how the agreement is to unfold for K-12.

Juvenile Justice:
We’ve been working to protect investments in home- and community-based alternatives to incarceration for youth, supporting efforts to keep youth out of incarceration. Through our partnership in the RISE for Youth coalition, we’ve been working hard to push back against legislative efforts to unnecessarily construct new, large youth prisons that we know hurt youth and families. Stay tuned for our budget result analysis in this area, as well.

Protect Civil Rights and Decriminalize Poverty:
One in six drivers in Virginia has their license suspended for unpaid court fines and fees—an unfair, automatic process that keeps many people in a cycle of debt, unemployment, and further criminal charges. We worked hard to champion SB 181 (Stanley), a bill that would’ve repealed this suspension statute and helped dismantle the Commonwealth’s debtors’ prison model that our code enables. The bill performed strongly in the Senate, reporting out of a challenging Courts committee, an often insurmountable Finance committee, and the Senate floor before crossing over into House Appropriations, where it was ultimately struck down on a 5(Rs) – 3(Ds) party line vote. We increasingly built strong bipartisan legislative and media support for the bill before and over the course of the session, and have already begun plans to bring it back next year.

Support Immigrant Communities:
LAJC partnered with VACOLAO on priorities to ensure that immigrant communities have equal treatment, equal opportunities, and equal representation in the Commonwealth, including: driver’s license/permit access for all immigrant Virginians and in-state tuition access for immigrant Virginia students regardless of legal status. Unfortunately, despite fervent advocacy and inspirational positive turnout at committee hearings, these bills were voted down along party lines. We will continue to advocate on these and other immigration issues, to grow bipartisan support for these critical human and civil rights efforts.

To become involved with our legislative advocacy, please contact LAJC Attorney and Policy Coordinator Amy Woolard at amy@justice4all.org. You can also sign up for email alerts on our website here

Our 2018 VA Legislative Priorities

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Dear Friends of LAJC, 
  
The 2018 Virginia legislative session is underway! Session began Wednesday, January 10th, as the legislature worked to organize itself amidst many new faces and a new building: this year—and for at least three more sessions until a new building is completed—the General Assembly will complete much of its committee work and have legislative offices in the Pocahontas Building, located at 900 E. Main St. in Richmond. 
  
Legislators have already filed more than 2400 bills & resolutions so far for this 60-day session, and more are coming. LAJC staff will be working to educate policymakers and support our partners on a variety of issues, but our primary priorities for this session:  
   
Educate Every Child 
SB 170 (Stanley, McClellan) / HB 296 (D. Bell, Bourne): Once again, we’ll be working hard to roll back harmful school suspension and expulsion laws. This year we’ll be focusing on eliminating suspension and expulsion for students in Pre-K to 3rd grade. Read more on the data and policy behind our recommendation in our Suspended Progress 2017 report released last October
  
SB 476 (Reeves): In an effort to limit unnecessary and harmful contact between students and law enforcement, we are supporting this bill to give schools discretion in whether to refer students to law enforcement for misdemeanors and status offenses. Currently, schools have no choice and are mandated to refer nearly all offenses. 
  
Budget Amendments: LAJC will be supporting several budget amendments to make sure our schools are adequately funded and focused on improving school climate and reducing suspension and expulsion. These amendments include: additional funding for alternatives to suspension and expulsion; increasing targeted “At-risk Add-on” funding for economically disadvantaged students; and lifting the artificial cap on schools’ ability to fund support staff such as social workers, psychologists, nurses, and maintenance staff. 
   
Juvenile Justice: We will be working to protect investments in home- and community-based alternatives to incarceration for youth and making sure Virginia juvenile justice policies don’t create an open door to the adult prison system. 
  
Protect Civil Rights and Decriminalize Poverty
SB 181
 (Stanley)One in six drivers in Virginia has their license suspended for unpaid court fines and fees—an unfair, automatic process that keeps many people in a cycle of debt, unemployment, criminal charges, and even jail when they must drive to meet their basic needs: work, healthcare appointments, the grocery store, and more. SB181 would repeal this license suspension statute, which is not only ineffective at collecting fines and fees, but also props up a debtors’ prison model in the Commonwealth. 
  
LAJC will also be weighing in on any criminal justice efforts that affect low-income communities of color, who most often bear the weight of policies that impede access to justice and expand/perpetuate mass incarceration and its consequences. Among those proposals, we will be supporting a broad increase to the felony larceny threshold and positive reform to the discovery process in Virginia.

Support Immigrant Communities
LAJC will be working in partnership with VACOLAO to ensure that immigrant communities have equal treatment, equal opportunities, and equal representation in the Commonwealth. Priorities for this session include: driver’s license/permit access for all immigrant Virginians; in-state tuition access for immigrant Virginia students regardless of legal status, and resolution efforts to condemn hate and celebrate diversity.  
   
Improve Health Care Access
LAJC unequivocally supports expanding Medicaid to ensure health care coverage access for the 400,000 Virginians who are cut off from being able to access critical basic care. We are members of the Healthcare for All Virginians coalition, and stand in support with the coalition’s work.
  
To get involved with our legislative advocacy, please contact LAJC Attorney and Policy Coordinator Amy Woolard at amy@justice4all.org
  
You can also sign up for email alerts on our website here (we will be sending more session updates like this one), and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. We will be sharing advocacy materials, updates, blog posts, and calls to action as the session progresses!

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.

RISE Coordinator Valarie Slater Wins Fellowship

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

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

LOCAL ADVOCATE WINS PRESTIGIOUS FELLOWSHIP IN YOUTH JUSTICE
Fellowship Supports Juvenile Justice Reform Advocates of Color

Richmond, Va., September 29, 2017 —Valerie Slater, attorney and RISE for Youth coalition coordinator at the Legal Aid Justice Center, has been has been chosen as a fellow in the Youth Justice Leadership Institute. The Institute is a prestigious national fellowship program for juvenile justice reform advocates run by the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) in Washington, DC. Applications to the year-long leadership development program are competitive, and only ten people are selected each year.

Ms. Slater coordinates the Reinvest in Supportive Environments (RISE) for Youth coalition, a statewide, nonpartisan campaign coalition with the central goal of developing community-based alternatives to youth incarceration.  She is a former staff attorney at the disAbility Law Center of Virginia and a graduate of the University of Richmond School of Law, where she participated in the school’s Children’s Defense and Education Rights clinics.

“Valerie is an exceptional leader who amplifies the voices of youth and communities of color to reform Virginia’s juvenile justice system,” said Rachael Deane, the legal director of the JustChildren program at Legal Aid Justice Center. “This fellowship will enhance the work of the RISE Coalition to demand alternatives to incarcerating youth in Virginia.”

“Youth justice can only be equitable when affected youth and families are a part of shaping what that system of justice looks like,” said Valerie Slater. “Overwhelmingly, impacted youth and families are people of color. I am honored to have this opportunity to grow as a leader as we work to tear down barriers and build opportunities for impacted communities to assert their power to help transform juvenile justice in Virginia.”

Although communities of color are heavily impacted by juvenile justice policy, advocates of color are surprisingly underrepresented in advocacy leadership. The Youth Justice Leadership Institute seeks to address this imbalance by offering fellowships to develop the leadership and advocacy skills of people of color who are in the youth justice field. During the year-long program, Institute fellows increase their knowledge about the juvenile justice system’s structures, reform needs, and effective advocacy and organizing techniques to achieve system change. They are also matched with experienced advocates, who mentor them over the course of the year. 

Photos, videos, and more information about the Institute and previous fellows can be found here: http://bit.ly/uMuJ9q

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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.

RISE for Youth is a statewide, nonpartisan campaign coalition whose central goal is to develop a continuum of community-based alternatives to incarceration that will keep juvenile justice system involved youth closer to their homes and support networks while making our communities safer.

The National Juvenile Justice Network is composed of coalitions, organizations and alumni of the Youth Justice Leadership Institute across 34 states and the District of Columbia, all of whom advocate for a fairer justice system for children and teens.

OCR Investigating Richmond Public Schools

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

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

Bill Farrar
Director, Public Policy and Communications
804-873-0624 | bfarrar@acluva.org

Federal Office for Civil Rights Opens Investigation of Discrimination in Richmond Public Schools
Congressman McEachin Joins LAJC, ACLU, and Richmond NAACP in Calling for a Swift But Thorough Investigation

 Richmond, Va., April 17, 2017—The United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) has given notice it will open an investigation into allegations that the Richmond Public Schools’ disciplinary policies and practices unlawfully discriminate against African American students and students with disabilities.

In August 2016, Legal Aid Justice Center and the ACLU of Virginia filed a complaint with OCR on behalf of two individual students and the Richmond chapter of the NAACP, alleging that RPS’ discipline policies punish African American students and students with disabilities more harshly and more frequently than their peers.

On April 12, 2017, OCR notified complainants that the office would open an investigation. During the investigation, OCR will collect and analyze information from the complainants, the Richmond Public Schools, and any other relevant sources. The letter did not indicate how long an investigation would take, or when the results would be released.

“I am very pleased to learn that OCR has opened an investigation into Richmond Schools because of the complaint filed by Just Children. I remain extremely concerned about the treatment of minority and special needs students throughout my district, which is why I have requested a district-wide investigation into disparate treatment. This is a positive first step and I strongly encourage the OCR and the DOE to initiate expeditiously a broad and in-depth investigation, as I have requested. Thank you, Just Children, for your critical and outstanding work on behalf of our students,” said Congressman A. Donald McEachin (VA-04).

The complaint alleges that during the 2014-15 school year, African-American students with disabilities were 12.91 times more likely than white students without disabilities to be short-term suspended, according to data provided by the Virginia Department of Education. New data has surfaced since the Complaint’s filing indicating that RPS continues to exclude an astonishing number of students each school year and that troubling discipline disparities remain.  According to Virginia Department of Education data, RPS suspended 4,680 students at least once during the 2015-16 school year. African-American students made up nearly 75 percent of the student population but 90.4 percent of students who were short-term suspended and 94.2 percent of students who were long-term suspended. While students with disabilities made up 17.7 percent of the student population, they accounted for 29.8 percent of students who were short-term suspended and 37.4 percent of students who were long-term suspended.

“These disparities have persisted too long,” said Rachael Deane, legal director for JustChildren, LAJC’s child advocacy program. “We applaud the opening of an investigation, and ask OCR to conduct a swift but thorough investigation of unfair discipline in RPS.”

Complainants allege that the student code fails to clearly define misconduct and prescribes overly harsh consequences for relatively minor misbehavior. The complaint calls for alternative approaches to discipline that would address instances of student misconduct while improving overall school climate. It argues that that Richmond Public Schools could eliminate discrimination and more effectively ensure safe and orderly schools through the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports, social and emotional learning programs and restorative justice processes.

“We are confident that the OCR investigation will shed light on and bring corrective relief to systematic disparities based on race and disability in RPS’ application of discipline,” said Leslie Chambers Mehta, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia. “This is a first step towards eradicating the school-to-prison pipeline in Virginia’s capital city.”

Resources:
Press Release (pdf)

OCR Notification Letter (pdf)

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.

Follow the Legal Aid Justice Center on Twitter @LegalAidJustice and on Facebook.

About the ACLU of Virginia
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia is a private, non-profit organization that promotes civil liberties and civil rights for everyone in the Commonwealth through public education, litigation and advocacy with the goal of securing freedom and equality for all. In addition to the litigation for which the ACLU has been known, we also educate the public, inform the media, lobby legislators, organize grassroots activists, and disseminate information about our constitutional freedoms through our membership and volunteer chapters.

Follow the ACLU of Virginia on Twitter @ACLUVA and on Facebook.

LAJC Announces New Leadership for JustChildren

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LAJC Announces New Leadership for JustChildren
Rachael Deane to become 3rd JustChildren Legal Director
A
ngela Ciolfi to take on new role leading impact litigation and advocacy organization-wide

Charlottesville, Va., April 14, 2017—The Legal Aid Justice Center is pleased to announce two new changes to its leadership team:

Rachael Deane will take the helm of LAJC’s acclaimed JustChildren Program, Virginia’s largest children’s law program.  Founded in 1997, JustChildren relies on a range of strategies, including direct services, impact litigation, and policy advocacy, to make sure the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable young people receive the services and support they need to lead successful lives in their community.  Ms. Deane will succeed Angela Ciolfi as the Program’s third Legal Director.

In 2016, Ms. Deane came to JustChildren to lead the program’s litigation portfolio from the National Fair Housing Alliance, where she was the Associate Director of Enforcement.  Before that, she managed civil rights advocacy and enforcement for Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME), a statewide fair housing organization based in Richmond.  In 2012, she was named “Top 40 Under 40” by the Virginia Housing Coalition.  Ms. Deane is a graduate of the University of Mary Washington and the University of Richmond School of Law.  Since arriving at JustChildren, Ms. Deane has taken on leadership roles in JustChilden’s campaigns to increase state financial support for public schools and combat discipline discrimination in the Richmond Public Schools.

“For two decades, JustChildren has worked to amplify youth voices in Virginia and to ensure that all children have the tools they need to learn, grow, and become successful, “ said Ms. Deane.  “Today our work is more urgent than ever, and I am eager to continue our efforts to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, reform our juvenile justice system, and make sure every child has access to a high-quality education and a robust community support network.”

Angela Ciolfi will leave her post at JustChildren to become LAJC’s Director of Litigation & Advocacy. Ms. Ciolfi joined LAJC as a Powell Fellow in 2004 after clerking for U.S. District Judge Reginald C. Lindsay.  She won the Oliver White Hill Award from the Virginia State Bar in 2003 and the Child Advocacy Award from the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division in 2010.  Ms. Ciolfi is a graduate of The College of William and Mary and University of Virginia School of Law.  During her time as Legal Director, the JustChildren team won significant education reforms, including tying graduation rates to high school accreditation, prohibiting suspension for truancy, rolling back zero tolerance policies, and improving regulation of unlawful school fees.

In her new role, Ms. Ciolfi will work with all four of LAJC’s programs—JustChildren, Immigrant Advocacy, Civil Rights and Racial Justice, and Economic Justice—in developing multi-faceted campaigns using litigation, policy advocacy, organizing, and communications to challenge policies and practices that perpetuate poverty.  “It’s always been LAJC’s philosophy that it is our duty to use our limited resources to fight for changes with the greatest possible impact,” said Ms. Ciolfi.  “I am eager to join our clients and the rest of the LAJC team in stamping out injustice and exploitation where it hides in plain sight—from the “get out of debt” ads on TV to the over-policing of our schools.”

“Angela brings a wealth of experience to her new position.  She is a visionary thinker with tenacity and expertise who will increase the impact of all our work,” said Mary Bauer, LAJC’s Executive Director.  “And the Legal Aid Justice Center and our clients are profoundly lucky that Angela’s former position as  the Legal Director of JustChildren has been filled by Rachael Deane.  Rachael brings enthusiasm, intellect, and a commitment to justice that will serve children throughout the Commonwealth exceedingly well.”

Both staffing changes take effect immediately.

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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