Whitney L. Gibbs EJF Report
The 2009 EJF Fellows
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I had a great experience this summer working at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Inc. I worked in their TeamChild Unit, which specializes in helping with the educational needs of children. Most of the work that TeamChild handles deals with children who are or should be receiving special education services in schools. This summer’s work was very insightful. I learned all about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which is the federal statute that guarantees special education services to all students who need them who attend public schools.
I think one of the most important lessons I learned, initially, was tenacity. It is easy to become discouraged or even jaded in this line of work. Most, if not all, of the kids whose cases came to our office, were in need of so much more than basic education. Many of them had records with the Department of Juvenile Justice, had been retained at least once, and sometimes twice, in various grades. The students’ life situations were extremely unpleasant, and it was difficult, at first, to handle case after case like that, and not be discouraged. However, after working on various cases, I came to realize that as lawyers, we were not there to “fix” the students’ lives, but to assist them in the way that we were able to—through educational access. That realization helped me to focus my efforts in handling each student’s case.
There were also many highlights to my summer experience. I got to help write an amicus brief, that was sent to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, on behalf of an autistic student who was alleging improper restraint and seclusion by an instructor. Coming into the case, I had no knowledge of autistic students and the legalities surrounding their rights to receive an education. I also got to sit in on oral arguments for a case that was before the Georgia Court of Appeals. That case also involved the improper seclusion of a disabled student.
Additionally, I worked on a case involving the potential emancipation of a minor. That case was still pending at the end of the summer. It was a great experience interviewing the client, researching statutes, and advising the client on next steps to take.
Another aspect of my fellowship experience that I enjoyed was being able to survey the other types of issues that come up in public interest law. At Legal Aid, the attorneys hold weekly staff meetings where they decide which cases they are going to take on. It was interesting to see the various issues that came up (ie. housing, landlord tenant laws, unemployment benefits, etc.).
Overall, I am really grateful for my summer experience because it was my first foray into working in education law, which is the area in which I want to work after graduation. My summer experience allowed me to preview the type of work that I will be doing after graduation and helped solidify my continuing desire to work not only in education law, but also in the public interest.