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July 20, 2011

From heartbreak to hope: Stanford law students help a child with emotional disabilities find a new school

At Mills Legal Clinic of Stanford Law School, students receive hands-on training by representing real people with real cases – with close supervision by faculty. In the Youth and Education Law Project, one of the clinic's 10 legal practice areas, students represent children and families in special education and school discipline matters.

By Kathleen J. Sullivan

Law Professor Bill Koski and Carly Munson, the Bingham McCutchen Youth and Education Clinical Fellow, stand in front of the new offices of the Mills Legal Clinic of Stanford Law School. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)

He was a pint-sized client – a brown-eyed third-grader – with big problems.

During the school year, the 8-year-old boy had been hospitalized twice for psychotic breakdowns. When he was released from the children's psychiatric ward, the only thing the little boy wanted to do was go back to school.

The school wasn't equipped to handle the needs of a child whose world had been turned upside down by mental illness, but refused to transfer him to one that could.

Instead, at a meeting called to discuss the youngster's educational options, school officials said he could rejoin his classmates for two hours a day. If he "behaved," he could increase the time to three hours a day.

"In other words, the school was making him earn time back in a classroom where he had every right to be in the first place," said Sam Roberge, one of four Stanford Law School students who represented the little boy and his mother in legal negotiations with the school and the school district. 

"At that moment, our case strategy crystallized. In essence, we were going to say to the school district: If you can't educate him, then find someone else who can."

No one disputed that the brown-haired boy qualified, under federal law and state statutes, for a special education program designed to meet his unique needs.

What was disputed was the intensity and type of services he needed – and who would pay for them.

Roberge, who worked on the third-grader's case during winter quarter, said representing the family made him realize how hard it is for parents whose children have special needs to negotiate the educational system alone.

"His mother was an excellent advocate – she gave us a binder of documents, organized chronologically, about her son's education – yet she was forced to navigate a minefield of legalistic jargon and overworked administrators and health care workers while also raising an infant daughter," Roberge said.

So Roberge and three other Stanford Law School students – Stephanie Klitsch, Charlie Wysong and Kyle Wislocky – became her lawyers.

The students were assigned to the case during the winter and spring quarters of 2011 after they enrolled in the Youth and Education Law Project.

They worked under the watchful eye and careful coaching of William Koski, the Eric & Nancy Wright Professor of Clinical Education and Director of the Youth and Education Law Project, and Carly Munson, the Bingham McCutchen Youth and Education Clinical Fellow at the Law School.

Representing real people with real cases

The Youth and Education Law Project is one of 10 legal practice areas that compose the Mills Legal Clinic of Stanford Law School, which provides pro bono legal services to underserved communities and causes.

Students enrolled in the project represent children, adolescents and their families in special education and school discipline matters. In addition, the project engages in complex school reform litigation, and educational policy research and advocacy.

Currently, the Youth and Education Law Project is representing more than 60 students from across California in the pathbreaking Robles-Wong v. California lawsuit, which seeks to reform California's K-12 public school finance system.

The other practice areas in the Mills Legal Clinic are: community law; criminal defense; criminal prosecution; environmental law; immigrants' rights; intellectual property; international human rights and conflict resolution; organizations and transactions; and Supreme Court litigation. Each practice area has a faculty director, a clinical teaching fellow and a legal assistant.

The Mills Legal Clinic Blog provides regular updates on the work and accomplishments of students enrolled in all 10 practice areas.

Larry Kramer, the Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean of Stanford Law School, said the hands-on legal training offered at the Mills Legal Clinic is part of the school's core curriculum.

"You can't become a rabbi or a priest without serious supervised clinical education – much less a doctor, or a nurse or a psychologist or a psychiatrist or a social worker," he said. "Law is the only profession that gives people licenses to perform services for others that doesn't require serious, supervised clinical education. We offer clinical training because it's an essential part of legal training to take classroom knowledge and help students work through the process of deploying it, so they get some sense of what it's like to work through the messy complexity of cases."

The Mills Legal Clinic, formerly located in the basement of Stanford Law School, will move into the new William H. Neukom Building this fall.

The new clinic, which will be located on the ground floor of the three-story building, was designed to foster team-style learning and informal interactions among students and faculty. It has a large open space with 72 workstations as well as conference rooms for research, writing and private consultations with clients. Glass partitions and skylights will diffuse natural light throughout the floor.

Mills Legal Clinic is one of many programs that has benefited over the last four years from The Stanford Challenge, a fundraising campaign dedicated to supporting people and programs seeking solutions to global problems and educating the next generation of leaders. The five-year fundraising campaign is now in its final year.

The clinic remains a key priority for the Law School in these, the final months of the campaign, as the school seeks to transform legal education and the way in which it trains future leaders. In this video, students and faculty talk about the program.

Learning how to be a lawyer, not just think like one

While some law schools only offer clinic classes to a fraction of their students, Stanford can accommodate every student who wants to enroll, said Stanford Law Professor Lawrence C. Marshall, associate dean for clinical education and the David & Stephanie Mills Director of the Mills Legal Clinic.

He said about 70 percent of Stanford's 640 law students enroll in the clinic during their second or third year of law school.

"It has become such a vital part of how we teach that we think every student needs to take a clinical quarter before they graduate," he said. "The faculty will soon be voting on a proposal to make clinic a requirement. No other elite law school in the country could imagine doing that. Most law schools don't have the capacity to do that. But they haven't invested anywhere near what we have in expanding the clinical program and faculty over the last seven years."

At the Mills Legal Clinic, students run the show.

"They're the players, we're the coaches," Marshall said. "They get ownership of these cases, with very, very close supervision."

That supervision involves hours and hours of coaching.

"We'll have situations in which a student is scheduled to make a 15-minute presentation before a judge and the student will spend eight, 10 or 15 hours practicing for the hearing," Marshall said. "Afterward, the student will come back to the clinic, and we will dissect the hearing for several more hours."

Marshall said the clinical education program at Stanford offers students the opportunity to develop the habit of "reflective lawyering," where students learn how to learn from the continual process of practicing law.

"In many ways, it could be the most vital lesson we can possibly teach them," he said. "Part of what we need to do is to get them into the habit and develop the skills to be able to look back on a day of practice and figure out what they can learn from what happened that day."

Marshall said the clinic offers constant feedback to students – what they did well, what they didn't do well, how they could improve their analysis, how they could improve their writing. He said the tiny faculty-student ratio in the Mills Legal Clinic – there is one faculty member for every six students – makes that possible.

Lifting a heavy burden off a mother's shoulders

Koski, an accomplished litigator who earned a doctorate in Education at Stanford in 2003, said the beauty of the Youth and Education Law Project is that people come to its students with complex, messy problems.

"Not the kind of problems students learn about in law classes, but the kind of real-life problems they'll be dealing with every day as lawyers," Koski said. "As lawyers, we need to bring some order to this messiness."

In the case of the little boy, bringing order to the "messiness" meant analyzing documents, including hundreds of pages of medical and educational records. It meant interviewing experts – including the child's psychiatrist and therapist – to understand the dense technical jargon of the tests, reports and evaluations.

"It was like trying to earn an MD, PhD and law degree all at once," Roberge said. "After reading the files, I finally realized how daunting of a task it was going to be to advocate for the high level of services he needed."

Roberge said another difference between law school classes and the legal clinic is that representing a client requires gathering facts.

"On law school exams, the facts are neatly prepackaged, and you have to apply the law to those facts," he said. "Not so in the clinic. Uncovering the facts relevant to the little boy's case required many hours of digging."

Roberge said he expected to do battle with the school district. He was surprised, though, that the case involved so much client counseling.

"It was tough for me at first to feel as if I had the authority to represent the mother, because I was only 23 years old and not a parent," he said.

"Nevertheless, my partner, Stephanie Klitsch, and I exhaustively researched the issues and helped her understand her options. In fact, midway through winter quarter, she authorized us to speak with the boy's father (they were not on speaking terms at the time) and I thought: Wow, they don't teach you how to do this in law school. Until, of course, you take a clinic."

A report that breaks the bureaucratic logjam

The students requested a formal evaluation of the child's medical condition by a county mental health agency. That three-page report, which recommended that the child receive full-time residential care, was the key to success.

"When we got the evaluation from the county mental health professionals in May, we knew from their very pointed and concise report how serious the boy's condition was, and the intensity of the care he needed," said Charlie Wysong, who worked on the case during spring quarter.

"Luckily, the school recognized the power of that report as well. It broke a bureaucratic logjam for us and dramatically changed the discussions about treatment and placement."

The students wrote a letter to the school's lawyer requesting that the school pay for the child to attend a private school in which he would receive full-time therapy.

To prepare for negotiations with the school district, they drafted negotiation plans.

"It's an exercise in which they identify the interests of the relevant parties, and the rights and powers each of those parties can exercise," Koski said. "It shows where our interests align and where we can find common ground, as well as what rights we have and how we might exercise them."

Also, the students took part in simulated negotiating sessions in which Koski and Munson, the project's clinical fellow, played the roles of school district officials to demonstrate the wide range of issues that could arise during the meeting.

"The actual negotiations were much harder, because there were so many players at the table who we were meeting for the first time, including the school's lawyers," Wysong said. "And we were representing our client for real."

While the parties reached a tentative agreement, Wysong said the victory would feel incomplete until the plan was finalized and the little boy started school.

Wysong said the case showed the challenges parents face trying to take advantage of the rights guaranteed under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

"The Youth and Education Law Project shows how lawyers can represent individual kids and families through this process, because we have specialized knowledge and skills, and because we have experience with the system – through our clinical instructors," Wysong said.

"School districts return our phone calls, pay attention to our requests and respond to our negotiations. This can be empowering both for us and for our clients, many of whom have struggled for years to get the attention and the help they need from their schools."



Judith Romero, (650) 723-2232,

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