Baker Hostetler Helps Legal Aid Preserve Education Rights
In 2006 Baker Hostetler committed an $80,000 grant, distributed over three years, to support a Legal Aid staff attorney devoted to education matters. Because of Baker Hostetler’s support, Legal Aid was able to leverage those funds and grow its education law practice considerably. Legal Aid preserves education rights of low-income children through direct representation, the training of advocates and parents, and by challenging wrongful school policies.
Policies like that encountered by Amelia Washington*, who was shocked when her nine year-old daughter Lynelle* was suspended from school. The third grader, an honors student, had brought a tiny, two-inch purple water squirter – a toy you might find at a summer picnic or child’s birthday party – to school. A classmate spotted the toy and reported Lynelle to a teacher. Considered a weapon according to school policy, the water pistol was deemed cause for suspension and, subsequently, expulsion. Lynelle stated she did not see any difference between the water squirter and a fashion doll she had previously brought with her to school.
Lynelle was not represented at the initial expulsion hearing; the district took action and expelled her. She missed twenty school days – one full month. In accordance with the school policy, she was not afforded an opportunity to make up her work.
Baker Hostetler Education Attorney Katie Feldman represented Ms. Washington and her daughter on appeal: “Unfortunately, Lynelle’s expulsion was an instance of zero tolerance for weapons trumping common sense. By expelling Lynelle under its ‘look-alike weapon’ prohibition, the district failed to follow its own policy since the squirt gun clearly did not even match the definition provided by the district of a look-alike weapon.”
Adds Ms.Washington, “Ms. Feldman really did some digging into definitions and legality, which I wouldn’t have known about. If it hadn’t been for the legal assistance, I don’t think we would have been able to handle the situation.” At the hearing, Ms. Feldman highlighted the importance of access to education and the district’s responsibility to educate Lynelle. The expulsion was overturned, and Lynelle was allowed to make up the school work she missed during her absence. Lynelle is now in fourth grade and continues to do well.
Ms. Feldman notes, “The Washingtons hoped that by challenging the expulsion and the district’s interpretation of its look-alike weapon policy, they could prevent other families from going through the same experience.”
* Name changed to protect client’s confidence