LSA's Next Frontier: Barriers to Public Education
The foremost barrier to middle class status remains the absence of a quality education. As Legal Services Alabama continues to expand its mission of fighting entrenched poverty, it is preparing to launch an initiative this fall to challenge obstacles to educational access for low income children.
Terrika Shaw, a Staff Attorney in LSA’s Birmingham office, and Laurie McFalls, a Staff Attorney with LSA’s Huntsville Office, were recently tapped as co-chairs of LSA’s Education Task Force. They will spearhead LSA’s efforts to offer legal advocacy on behalf of low income students facing obstacles to a quality education, from patterns of discrimination in discipline to bullying, to unsafe school environments and denial of access for homeless or special needs kids.
“With the resurgence of this initiative, we will help students and parents navigate [barriers in] Alabama’s education system,” Shaw said. “Every child deserves access to education, and we want to make sure that each child is afforded that right. We want LSA to not only be a legal advocate but also an ally to parents in this fight. We believe that education is the first step in breaking the cycle of poverty.”
For McFalls, informing the public that LSA is helping children across the state to “find their voice,” is just one goal of this new practice area.
“Unfortunately, we have found that many school systems across Alabama do not want to educate certain students. This is a problem that we are determined to remedy,” McFalls said. “Students and their parents feel lost and helpless. What they don’t know, is that they are entitled to bring an attorney with them to their disciplinary hearings. LSA can help ensure that children are properly educated and disciplined.
“Similarly, sometimes schools refuse to enroll children, due to a simple lack of knowledge of the law,” McFalls said. “We want to inform the parents of Alabama that LSA will fight to ensure their children are enrolled, and receive a proper education. This is a great opportunity for LSA to step in … and fight alongside these students for their right to be educated.”
The Task Force looks to partner with organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disability Advocacy Program to hold community events for the public. These forums will focus on raising awareness of legal remedies for any student who faces roadblocks in enrollment, has a disability and needs additional services, and/or is facing disciplinary action such as a suspension or expulsion.
“We have some upcoming events, such as a Facebook Live session,” Shaw said. “In this session, we will discuss topics such as: ‘how to register your kid for school for the upcoming year,’ ‘how to avoid disciplinary punishments,’ and ‘what to do if your child is facing suspension or expulsion.’ This will be the first of many community education events.”
Michael Forton, LSA’s Director of Advocacy, said the issue of educational access in Alabama has a complicated legacy.
“Many of the problems facing schools today have historic roots mixed with new pressures like the pursuit of higher test scores,” Forton said. “All too often, the victims of these pressures are the most vulnerable kids – the ones without parents who care, or with parents who don’t know how to protect them. Often, these vulnerable kids are denied an education without any meaningful review, in spite of the fact that they are the ones who need it the most.”
Education, Forton said, is the “single most important factor” in achieving lasting success. Forton stated there is more work to be done in emphasizing that there are legal remedies available to help poor kids overcome threats to an adequate education.
“We have not done enough here at LSA to recognize and address this fact,” Forton said. “Our creation of an education workgroup is a first step in beginning to meet this essential need on behalf of poor children of Alabama.”
For more information about this new initiative or education issues, please visit www.legalservicesalabama.org, or call LSA’s free intake hotline at 1-866-456-4995.