February 26, 2014
2L Jessica Johnson discussed her pro bono work with New Orleans youths during an American Bar Association Midyear Meeting forum.
An internship with the Juvenile Justice Project after her first year at Tulane Law School led Jessica Johnson into volunteering with “Stand Up For Each Other,” a group that pairs law students with youths facing school suspensions or expulsion. The pro bono work has given her hands-on experience representing clients and got her an invitation to Chicago to explain the group’s efforts before a national audience during a special forum Feb. 7 at the American Bar Association’s Midyear Meeting.
The forum brought together experts from around the country who’ve developed successful programs to address the “school-to-prison pipeline” by which skewed school disciplinary processes are seen as channeling children toward failure.
Chicago attorney Wes Sunu, an organizer and moderator of the forum, said, “We are impressed that law students like Jessica have volunteered to support the work of SUFEO and have become part of the solution to the prison pipeline problem in New Orleans.”
Johnson called the forum, before a packed-room audience, “a phenomenal experience.”
“It was great to be in a room with so many positive solutions” being explored, she said. She also took part in discussions about starting SUFEO programs at Loyola University Chicago School of Law and the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis. Forum participants encouraged expanding the program nationwide.
Through SUFEO, law students investigate the circumstances surrounding a student’s disciplinary action and help guide children and their families through the administrative hearing process. The goal is to keep kids in school and prevent them from tumbling into the spiral of delinquency and trouble with the law.
“I think it gives us significant experience with how to represent clients, understanding what clients want and explaining processes to clients,” said Johnson, a 2L from Houston. Representation could involve appearing before a school board to explain why a child should stay in school. Advocates also must follow up after six months and record whether problems have recurred.
This year, 15 Tulane students are involved with SUFEO, said Eileen Ryan, program coordinator for Tulane Law School’s Public Interest Programs. From 2011 to 2013, Tulane students recorded 802 hours of pro bono work with the group.
According to the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, through which SUFEO operates, New Orleans schools suspend and expel students at rates several times higher than the national average, and students who are pushed out of school are far more likely to end up in trouble with the law. But SUFEO advocates have been able to help get many cases resolved through mediation, Johnson said, and that enables students to continue their education.
“The most important goal of SUFEO is to make children understand the gravity of what they’ve done and express remorse,” Johnson said.
“I’m not a native New Orleanian, and getting to learn the city through our clients has been really, really interesting,” she said.