Susana Cervantes, J.D. ’17

Last December, I received an email announcing my internship assignment in the Child Advocacy Clinic: I was going to be placed with the legal team of the charter school network Achievement First, working to research school discipline policies centered around principles of restorative justice and trauma-sensitivity. Such policies have increasingly been recognized as an attractive alternative to exclusionary discipline practices (i.e., class removals/suspensions/expulsions).

I was thrilled to be a part of this project–the opportunity to work on this type of education policy was one of the reasons I came to Harvard Law after two years of teaching. However, I became nervous when my supervisor told me that a group of families had recently filed a lawsuit against Achievement First alleging various violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act based on its schools’ treatment of students with disabilities. While I would still be working on the policy research we had discussed before the lawsuit was filed, I would also likely spend much of my internship helping to respond to this litigation.

I felt conflicted when I heard that because last semester I had a great experience working in Harvard’s Education Law Clinic, which represents families in special education disputes with schools. I had seen how reluctant schools could be to expend the cost to provide services that students clearly needed and deserved. The idea of “switching sides” to represent a school network initially worried me.

Fortunately, I’ve found myself in an organization that truly cares about its students. I’ve watched Achievement First ensure that it is doing everything possible not only to meet the standards of legal compliance, but also to do what’s best for kids. Most importantly for my personal career development, I’ve seen the crucial role that in-house legal counsel can play in that process, both in educating staff about their legal duties, and in managing relationships between school and network leaders, families, and district representatives to work together towards positive outcomes. It’s a good reminder that all of these people have a stake in educating children, and that lawyers on all sides have the potential to help effect meaningful change.