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Monday, July 2, 2018

Education Clinic Supports ACLU in Southern California Education Lawsuit

The Education Adequacy Project Clinic and the ACLU Foundation of Southern California have filed a landmark lawsuit to end school discipline policies that criminalize children of color in Riverside County, California.

“We’re thrilled to partner with the ACLU to combat discriminatory practices in California public schools,” said Matt Nguyen ’19 and Brandon Levin ’20, both EAP co-directors and principal architects of the ACLU-EAP partnership. “This litigation will ensure children across Riverside have equal access to a high-quality public education.”

Nguyen and Levin, both Southern California natives, collaborated with Sylvia Torres-Guillén, the ACLU of California’s Director of Education Equity, to bring EAP’s pro bono consultancy to the ACLU litigation. The ACLU Foundation’s Racial Justice Program is also partner to the suit.

“The county should be providing equity and excellence in education, eliminating barriers to success. Instead, it’s targeting, luring, and funneling children — especially children of color —into a criminal system,” said Torres-Guillén, who, prior to leading the ACLU’s Education Equity Project, served as Special Counsel to California Governor Jerry Brown ’64. “These are students, not criminals.”

Operating within local public schools, the Riverside County Probation Department in 2001 established the “Youth Accountability Team” (YAT), a program that thrusts schoolchildren as young as 12 into criminal justice proceedings. Of the Riverside students affected, a disproportionate percentage come from underserved, low-income, and minority backgrounds, according to the complaint.

Unlike school and community-based interventions designed to keep students engaged in the classroom setting, YAT is overly punitive and widens the juvenile justice net to criminalize disadvantaged youth who would otherwise not be in the system, according to the lawsuit. Over the years, thousands of children have been referred to YAT probation for minor infractions that, in the past, would typically merit less than a detention.

With a baseless threat of prosecution looming, children and families are led to believe that routine student behavior, such as tardiness, low grades, and speaking out-of-turn, are criminal offenses, the clinic said. Under these conditions, Riverside children are pushed into YAT as a “diversionary” alternative.

Although the YAT program was ostensibly created to divert youth out of the juvenile court system, the lawsuit alleges that its application has been exceedingly broad and harmful. Once enrolled in YAT, these children are subject to an onerous supervision regimen that deprives them of basic constitutional guarantees, including their fundamental rights to education, free speech, free assembly, privacy, and intimate association, according to the clinic. This is especially concerning because Black and Latinx students are overrepresented among youth most negatively impacted by YAT.

The ACLU lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, seeks to end these discriminatory practices and realize the full potential of restorative justice across the Riverside Unified School District.

Co-counsel on the litigation are the ACLU Foundation; ACLU Foundation of Southern California; ACLU Foundation of San Diego and Imperial Counties; Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP; and the National Center for Youth Law. Education Adequacy Project Clinic members who worked on this matter include Arjun Ramamurti ’18, Justin Smallwood ’19, Katrin Márquez ’20, John Gonzalez ’20, and Megan Mumford ’20, as well as Lydia Fuller ’19 and Sesenu Woldemariam ’19, both of whom also served as clinic co-directors. Professors David Rosen ’69, Alex Knopp, and Alex Taubes ’15 supervised the EAP effort.

For the last 15 years, the Education Adequacy Project supported high-stakes constitutional rights litigation to advance the promise of high-quality public education for all children. In partnership with national nonprofits like the ACLU and NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the clinic advocated for education funding reform, school desegregation, and juvenile justice across America. Before 2018, the bulk of the clinic’s work stemmed from a pioneering class action lawsuit, CCJEF v. Rell. With Debevoise & Plimpton LLP as lead counsel, EAP and a nonprofit coalition of parents, students, teachers, and local elected leaders alleged the State of Connecticut had failed to fulfill its constitutional duty to provide “suitable and substantially equal educational opportunities.” Because that case concluded earlier this year following a divided ruling by the Connecticut Supreme Court, Spring 2018 marked the final semester of the EAP Clinic.

Read more from the ACLU.