The Legal Aid Justice Center was part of a coalition of 40 groups from across the state representing parents, children, students, advocates for people with disabilities, child abuse prevention advocates and legal advocates applauds the Virginia General Assembly for passing legislation that will limit the harmful use of seclusion and physical restraint in schools to emergency situations. The Coalition for the Improvement of School Safety advocated in support of H.B. 1443 and S.B. 782, which passed with overwhelming support from both houses and is expected to land on the desk of Gov. Terry McAuliffe soon.
“We are proud to have joined with our partners to support this legislation, which will provide meaningful protections to Virginia students and give school staff the tools they need to prevent and address challenging behaviors,” said Angela A. Ciolfi, legal director of the JustChildren Program at Virginia’s Legal Aid Justice Center. “Physical restraint and seclusion should never be a default form of school discipline.”
In Partnership with LAJC and PHAR, CRHA Adopts Eviction Policy Changes
Photo courtesy of PHAR
Charlottesville, Va., January 20, 2015 – After more than two years of vigorous campaigning by residents and advocates, on January 14 the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority (CRHA) formally adopted extensive amendments to its eviction policy. The newly adopted policy includes the majority of the changes championed by the Public Housing Association of Residents (PHAR) and Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC). Many of these changes had already been informally adopted by CRHA during the course of the campaign and resulted in a 91% decrease in evictions from 2011 to 2014. In a win-win, the policies – which clarify resident responsibilities and provide residents avenues to get back on track after periods of financial hardship – have also already led to increased rent collection by CRHA.
The new policy, among other things, clarifies that residents will be offered one-on-one meetings with housing authority staff prior to court action; repayment plans will be offered to all residents who fall behind on their rent but are otherwise complying with their lease; lease termination notices will contain a clear explanation of how to remedy the violation; and a summons to court can only be issued when the amount owed exceeds $50. On the whole, the new policy makes eviction a last resort.
This successful campaign began on September 11, 2012, when Ms. Seay, an elderly woman and long-term resident, was evicted from her CRHA apartment on South First Street, sparking a community protest. PHAR and LAJC realized a systemic approach was needed: a new binding eviction policy.
Throughout 2013 and 2014, PHAR organized community members to speak out at CRHA meetings and other public forums for changes to CRHA’s eviction policy. At PHAR’s request, CRHA placed a moratorium on evictions from September through November 2012, acknowledging that their eviction policy needed to be revisited. In January 2013, CRHA comprehensively amended its Admissions and Continued Occupancy Policy but failed to revise the eviction policy. Frustrated, over 100 people marched in protest of recent evictions and in support of dignity for residents of public housing.
PHAR continued to meet with Commissioners, lobby for a new written policy, and raise awareness about the necessary changes that had yet to be made throughout 2013. As the year drew to a close and no policy changes were offered by CRHA, PHAR and LAJC worked together to draft their own version of a new eviction policy. Throughout the spring and summer of 2014, PHAR and LAJC met with CRHA Commissioners to discuss their policy proposal. After months of meetings, public dialogue on the issue, and sustained demands, in the fall CRHA staff held a series of highly productive meetings with PHAR and LAJC representatives. On January 14, 2015, the CRHA adopted almost all of PHAR’s and LAJC’s proposed changes to the housing authority’s eviction policy.
Over the past two years, PHAR’s sustained campaign succeeded not only in changing CRHA’s eviction policy, but also in making eviction a last resort in our community. PHAR, LAJC, and the Charlottesville public housing community at-large are pleased with the changes we were able to achieve in partnership with CRHA. We will stay vigilant to ensure the policies that drastically reduced evictions and are now formalized in CRHA’s eviction policy are respected.
The Public Housing Association of Residents (PHAR) was founded in 1998 and has become one of the strongest and most well-known resident organizations in the country. PHAR is the recognized “resident advisory board (RAB)” for public housing in Charlottesville. PHAR is made up entirely by and for people living in public housing. We advocate and organize in our community for systemic changes and assist residents with improving their quality of life.
Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) provides legal representation for low-income individuals in Virginia. LAJC is PHAR’s general counsel.
A new Report by the Legal Aid Justice Center finds that the achievement gap between low-income and other students has widened substantially since 2009 when the state slashed the education budget to address a short-term economic downturn.
“A widening achievement gap is an alarming trend, suggesting that budget cuts may be having a disproportionately negative impact on low-income students,” according to the Report’s author, policy researcher John Morgan. “This threatens to undo previous progress and to stall Virginia’s efforts to raise achievement levels of low-income students and struggling schools.”
The Legal Aid Justice Center announced that it had reached a settlement in our lawsuit on behalf of women incarcerated at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. WileyRein and Washington Lawyers’ Committed are co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The lawsuit asserted that the 1200 women incarcerated at FCCW are being provided constitutionally inadequate medical care, leaving their health and lives at serious risk. The settlement provides a framework for significant reforms of the medical care at FCCW. The settlement also outlines a process by which the parties will jointly review and revise Department of Corrections policies regarding health care. The settlement directs that the parties nominate a court-appointed monitor who will oversee the care provided at FCCW. Because the case was certified as a class action, the settlement will need to be approved by the court at a subsequent hearing.
The settlement came in the wake of two sweeping opinions in favor of the Plaintiffs from the court—an order granting class certification and an order granting Plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment.
On November 25, 2014, the court issued an order granting Plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment and denying the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment. In a powerful decision, the court ruled that that Department of Corrections may not delegate its constitutional obligation to provide adequate medical care by simply turning health care over to a subcontractor.
On November 20, 2014, the court issued a broad opinion granting class certification in the case, which means that any judgment in the case will apply to all 1200 women at the prison, not just the four named plaintiffs.
Richmond Public Schools Agrees to Significant Improvements in Policies for Non-English-Speaking Families –Agreement with U.S. Department of Education Resolves Civil Rights Complaint Filed by the Legal Aid Justice Center
As the result of a complaint filed by the Legal Aid Justice Center with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, the Richmond Public School division has agreed to revise and improve its policies to ensure that parents and guardians whose primary language is not English are not discriminated against and have full access to the educational process
The complaint was filed on behalf of a Spanish-speaking parent whose middle school child faced expulsion from Richmond Public Schools (RPS). According to the complaint, although the mother spoke only Spanish, the school division conducted its expulsion process in English only, preventing the mother “from meaningfully participating in the disciplinary process and understanding her rights.”
U.S. Department of Education Finds Inappropriate Use of Restraint and Seclusion of Students with Disabilities at Virginia Schools
Following a comprehensive investigation at two public special education schools, the U.S. Department of Education has found that the repeated use of physical restraint and seclusion to manage student behavior is ineffective and inappropriate. The Department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) determined that the PACE East and PACE West schools in Prince William County, Va., routinely denied students their right to an appropriate education when they were consistently removed from classrooms and placed in a separate room
The findings were issued in response to a November 2012 complaint filed on behalf of the mother of a PACE East student with emotional disabilities who was placed in a seclusion room for hours at a time on multiple occasions and subjected to floor-facing extreme restraint on six occasions. This included four instances where police were involved, even though his behavior did not indicate any danger to himself or others. The systemic complaint centered on the schools’ pervasive overuse of seclusion and restraint as a default behavioral intervention that discriminated against students with emotional disabilities.
The JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center has filed a complaint with the Virginia Department of Education describing systemic problems with Petersburg City Public Schools’ “Child Find” program. Child Find is a part of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) that requires that schools provide free, appropriate education to children with disabilities.The Child Find mandate requires that schools identify and evaluate all students with disabilities in order to ensure that children receive the educational services they need.
The complaint, filed on behalf of six individual students and all similarly-situated PCPS students, describes three Child Find violations: 1) the failure to locate and evaluate students who need special education services; 2) the failure to appropriately find students eligible for services even after evaluating; and 3) the failure to provide meaningful educational benefits to students who need special education services.
On March 27, 2014, we filed a lawsuit, Leoncio Paz v. Midland Funding, in Fairfax County. Our complaint alleged violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practice Act (FDCPA) based on Midland’s direct falsehoods and false implications in its attempt to obtain a default judgment against Mr. Paz. Midland withdrew their collection attempt when we stepped up to represent Mr. Paz, but we sued them for damages based on their deceitful business practice.
Our goal is to make the exploitative zombie debt collection business model too expensive to be profitable, thus forcing the debt collection companies to abandon their practice of suing low-income people without the means to prove their case. “Zombie debt” refers to debt that third-party debt collection companies’ attempts to collect despite either it being barred by statute of limitations or the companies lack proof that they have a legal right to collect on it.
Seven courageous immigrant students represented by Legal Aid Justice Center have won their effort to gain in-state tuition eligibility—not just for themselves, but for thousands of Virginia recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announced this morning that DACA recipients are eligible to apply for in-state tuition under existing Virginia law, as the students had argued in a lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Justice Center last year. Legal Aid Justice Center thanks Attorney General Herring for opening the doors of educational opportunity to these deserving Virginia students.
Edgar Coker was only 15 when, upon advice of court-appointed counsel, he entered a guilty plea to the rape of a 14-year-old neighbor and was ordered to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. The complaining witness recanted her story two months later. However, it took seven years, several attorneys, dozens of law students, and a trip to the Virginia Supreme Court to remove Edgar Coker’s name from the sex offender registry. On February 10, Judge Jane Marum Roush issued an order vacating his conviction due to the constitutionally ineffective assistance provided by his trial counsel. The case is an unsettling reminder of why our youth desperately need highly skilled and motivated representation in juvenile court.
Photo: Edgar Coker outside the Virginia Supreme Court with his family and legal team, which includes attorneys from JustChildren and the UVA School of Law’s Innocence Project and Child Advocacy Clinic.