By Lauren Greil J.D. ’17
I taught for two years in Northern Florida before I came to Harvard Law School to be a student again. The school where I taught was a difficult place to work. It lacked resources: there weren’t enough desks in my classroom and the land-line phone did not work. Even my teacher laptop, provided by the school, was missing the space bar. More problematic was the shortage of teachers, particularly in the math department where I taught. My classes were packed. For example, it was normal for my Algebra classes to have 40 or more students in them. There were so many vacancies that some math classes were run by permanent substitutes.
The lack of resources, however, was not the most unpleasant thing – the school culture was. Students brought a great deal of trauma with them to school, and the school environment was further traumatizing. Physical fights were common and many of them spent more days in in-school suspension than in the classroom. They were required to put on bright orange vests before they could leave the classroom to walk to the restroom to signal to security guards that they were not skipping class.
I do not think about my students as much as I used to think about them, but, when I do, I feel sadness because school should be a place where young people feel safe, not a site of further trauma.
The Education Law Clinic is working to make schools in Massachusetts trauma sensitive and to make students feel more safe and supported. To accomplish its mission, the clinic works with the Safe and Supportive Schools Commission in Massachusetts (a commission created by a law that the clinic itself advocated for) to develop recommendations for improving school culture across the state. The clinic engages in legislative advocacy for laws and policies that support schools to develop safe and supportive environments for students.
This semester, I had the opportunity to work on a report for the Safe and Supportive Schools Commission and also to engage in legislative advocacy for the Safe and Supportive Schools line item in the state budget. For the Commission, I, with a team of law students from the clinic, worked on a report about parent engagement in Massachusetts schools. To develop our report, we engaged in qualitative research by interviewing parents, students, and providers across the state—in places as varied as Boston, Pittsfield, and the Cape. We learned so much from those whom we interviewed. One student told us:
“I feel like parent engagement is extremely important. I go to school for 6 hours but the rest of the time I’m with my mom. Whoever is your guardian has a huge impact on your life. If you make parent-school teacher relationship seem less important, it will push students out as well. If my mom doesn’t care, why should I care? You crave approbation from your parents. If you push parents out, it will push students too.”
There is so much wisdom housed in students and parents across the state. I am hopeful that our report will lead to policies that will further support parent engagement in Massachusetts.
The clinic is also a great opportunity for students interested in the legislative process. I met with dozens of state representatives and senators, advocating for the Safe and Supportive Schools line item. Our lobbying efforts had a real impact: the house budget now includes 500,000 dollars designated for Safe and Supportive Schools—a 100,000 dollar increase from last year’s budget.
I know from my own experience teaching that the work that the education law clinic is doing is vitally important. I only wish that there were similar organizations operating in more places.