Lawyering to Empower Students and Families: What an In-Person Truancy Court Program Session Looked Like in 2019-2020

By Katherine S. Davis As I spread out the books on the desks for the 5th graders to look over during CFCC’s Truancy Court Program (TCP) session, I was sure of one thing – before I got very far, Malik* would be by my side eagerly looking for a new book to take home. This slight-framed, 11-year-old boy with an infectious smile, but also a temper that frequently gets him into trouble, loves to read. I always took extra time to find books with him in mind. (*name changed for privacy) That day, however, Malik surprised me. Instead of going for a book about sports figures or soldiers with ancient swords, he zeroed in on one entitled Everything to Know about Chemistry and Chemical Reactions. “I want to read that,” he said, “so that I’ll know something that no one else in this school knows.”
This avid reader missed 49 days of school and was late 48 times in 4th grade. Malik has been bullied in school, often doesn’t participate in class and rarely does his homework. His teachers complain that he argues with other students and disengages in class by drawing or zoning out. The school recommended Malik and his family for participation in CFCC’s Truancy Court Program in the hopes that the resources and support we provide will help to change the trajectory that was already in place for Malik. Navigating School Choice
One of the biggest indicators of success for 5th graders in Baltimore City and other urban school systems is the middle school they will attend. Due to the school choice system in Baltimore City Public Schools, students who do not choose a school by mid-January are assigned to schools based on availability. Because Malik didn’t return his paperwork in time, he was placed in a middle school that has almost 500 students representing more than 15 ethnicities. The classes are large and the school struggles with gang violence, high suspension rates and low test scores. For a small student with a tendency to insert himself with abandon into dangerous situations, this school will present significant challenges. It seemed vital to find a smaller, calmer school where the teachers could relish his love of reading and have the time and energy to address the root causes of his behavior rather than being forced to simply react to it. Malik has numerous adults in his life, but none with sufficient time or energy for the advocacy necessary to change his middle school placement. To his teachers, he is one of at least 30 lively and demanding students. To the school counselor responsible for school choice, he is one of 150 students with similar needs. Malik’s mother has three younger children, an elderly mother, a job with a long commute and the stress of trying to find permanent and affordable housing. As the TCP Attorney, I have the required time, energy and knowledge. Fostering Empowerment
The question was how far to go. As a lawyer with clients and case numbers, my role is relatively cut and dry, but working in this type of situation presents a more delicate question. While the immediate goal was to secure acceptance for Malik in a middle school that will nurture him rather than send him out to the streets of Baltimore, there was a larger goal as well. By teaching his mother about the school choice process and guiding her as she advocates for Malik, I could help foster her ability to provide for all of her children as they grow and progress through the school system. Each time I spoke to Malik’s mother, I was clear that the decisions were hers and that I would act only on her direction and with her permission. As I investigated various schools, I repeatedly checked to get her thoughts on what would be best for Malik. When I succeeded in finding schools with space for Malik, I explained the pros and cons of each so that she could decide which ones to pursue. I then gave her clear instructions for the next steps. While I could have completed some of these steps for her, doing so would not have achieved the best long-term results. For example, after visiting the schools and making her choice, she was required to get a “Transfer Letter” from the district headquarters. When I offered to be available by phone to help, she replied, “If the office gives me any trouble, I have Mr. Johnson’s number.” Mr. Johnson, the middle school principal, was pulling for Malik. The mother’s confidence demonstrated that she was taking responsibility for her own advocacy. After all, this mother had moved herself and her four children from Wisconsin, enrolled the older two in school, secured employment and saved almost enough money to finance an apartment. She may have needed someone to help her navigate the complicated paths of school choice. She does not need someone to walk those paths for her. Throughout the summer, I stayed in frequent contact with Malik’s mom and continued to guide her through the numerous barriers to his transfer, from helping her obtain a duplicate birth certificate to working through transportation options. With encouragement, Malik’s mom found the time and energy to overcome each barrier and, by late August, had successfully enrolled her eldest son in the middle school of her and Malik’s choice. A primary purpose of CFCC’s Truancy Court Program is to help students and their families overcome barriers to school attendance, many of which are imposed upon them by situations outside of their control. We can also build self-advocacy skills, self-confidence and trust. Then we have created the opportunity to change both the attendance records of one child and the trajectory of an entire family.
Katherine S. Davis is CFCC’s Truancy Court Program Attorney. In addition to advocating for equitable access to education for all,Katie helps TCP families understand the importance of their education and empowers them to exercise their legal rights related to education, such as obtaining Individual Education Programs (IEPs) or securing vital supports for students experiencing homelessness. 

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