Nation & World

HLS students help at-risk children to succeed in school

3 min read

A witness to terrible domestic violence until the age of 8, “Jamal” still carries his worries into the classroom every day.

Even though he and his mother are now safe, he’s unable to focus, frequently acts out, and has been suspended from third grade.

On April 2, 10 Harvard Law School (HLS) students organized a Massachusetts State House briefing to demonstrate what schools can do to ensure that the growing number of traumatized children like Jamal overcome barriers to learning and find success. The legislative briefing grew out of the HLS clinical course “Education Advocacy and Systemic Change: Children at Risk.” In the course, 2Ls and 3Ls provide legal representation to help Jamal and other struggling clients achieve at their highest levels. The HLS students then bring “the voice of the child” from their one-on-one casework to their advocacy for systemic, social change.

Susan Cole, HLS clinical instructor and lecturer on law, says the course focuses on individual cases and legislative advocacy as part of a multistrategic approach. “Our goal is to teach HLS students how to use their litigation and negotiation skills to improve the lives of individual children and then bring the lessons learned to the state legislature, the courts, and executive offices where true systemic changes can be made.” Students in the course incorporate federal and state laws, education, psychology, and neurobiology into their work on behalf of vulnerable children.

At the briefing, which was sponsored by Rep. Alice Wolf of Cambridge, educators asked legislators for continued state funding to create “trauma-sensitive” environments where all children can learn. “The speakers really drove home the point that dramatic improvements can be made if you infuse the learning environment with measures designed to support children who have trauma histories,” said Melissa Causey J.D. ’10.

For these law students, the briefing produced its own educational impact. “It was great to see up close how the legislative process works,” said Jose Morales J.D. ’09, who organized the day as his clinical assignment. His classmate Adora Asonye J.D/M.B.A. ’09 added, “Oftentimes, as law students, we can get so caught up in litigation as a tool for advocacy that we forget there are a plethora of avenues through which change can be pursued.”

Offered by the Law School’s WilmerHale Legal Services Center, the clinical course is part of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, a joint project of HLS and the Boston-based nonprofit organization Massachusetts Advocates for Children.