Thursday, June 26, 2014 · by Tamara Aparton
By Laura Dudnick, SF Examiner
This fall, a 16-year-old boy entering his junior year at Lincoln High School — who two years ago was arrested for allegedly stealing a cellphone — will fulfill his dream of playing on the school’s football team after lifting his grades to a C average.
Another boy, who in early 2012 was arrested for allegedly assaulting another student at school, graduated from high school in December with plans to go to community college in spring.
Both teens, following their arrests, quickly found themselves struggling to navigate the deep waters of the legal system and in even more trouble at school. So how did they manage to find a different path?
That was due to the Legal Educational Advocacy Program, which at the time of the boys’ arrests was a new addition to the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.
The program — now in its third year and believed to be the only one of its kind in California — provides an education attorney and social worker for students who enter the justice system to keep youths from dropping out of school.
‘The support they need’
“Our aim is to improve kids’ education outcome to reduce re-offending,” said Lauren Brady, the program’s education attorney. “A lot of these kids experience an enormous amount of failure in school up to the point where they get to us. We build a plan to get students the support they need.”
And their efforts are working, according to the Public Defender’s Office. Of the more than 250 youths who have gone through the program since its inception in January 2012, fewer than 13 percent have offended again, and 80 percent demonstrate improved school attendance, Public Defender Jeff Adachi said.
“Fifty percent of the 1,000 or so kids that come into the [San Francisco] juvenile justice system are there because of incidents that occur on school grounds,” Adachi said. “For many kids it’s a matter of getting the support they need” in school, he said.
Each day, Brady and LEAP’s social worker, Marc Babus, travel from court to juvenile hall to schools to advocate for students and ensure their educational needs are being met, specifically by representing them at school disciplinary hearings and individualized plan meetings.
“It makes a huge difference to have a person on the ground in the schools who is a constant presence, who can troubleshoot and make linkages, and address issues as they come up and before they even become problems,” Brady said.
Brady and Babus have worked with students at 14 public middle schools, as well as all of the San Francisco Unified School District’s 18 high schools, to “provide a whole picture to judges [and] court officers about what education issues are for the students,” Brady said.
And judges take note of the increased efforts in a student’s education.
Keeping students in school is the best way to help them get out of the juvenile justice system, said Judge Patrick Mahoney, a former presiding judge of juvenile and family court in San Francisco.
“It has addressed effectively what has been a long-known need for students to be successful in getting out of the juvenile justice system,” Mahoney said. “What was different [about the program] was kind of concentrating on one of the most important elements of success for students — how they’re doing in school.”
Winning students’ trust
On a given day, Babus rides his bike to up to four schools after checking to see which of his students have court appearances. He’s developed positive relationships with them, though he said most were distrusting at first.
“Usually it takes a couple of court appearances before they really believe that I am who I say I am, that I’m there for [them], that I’m their advocate,” Babus said. “A vast majority learn that I’m on their side, they have a good attitude after that.”
In addition to working with students, Brady and Babus also provide community education and training to parents, guardians and other system partners, and participate in committees and other activities that aim to eliminate system gaps.
Adachi introduced the program in The City to help combat what’s often referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline, in which a student’s likelihood of being incarcerated later in life is correlated with being suspended, expelled or dropping out of school.
The majority of students in the program — at least 90 percent — are minorities, and about 80 percent are male, Brady said. Minorities also have the highest dropout rates in the SFUSD.
Initially funded by a three-year grant from the Department of Justice, the program’s funding will run out in December. Adachi is seeking money from The City to continue and expand the program by adding a paralegal, which would bring the annual cost of the program to nearly $200,000.
The City has agreed to fund at least $122,333 — enough to cover an education attorney and social worker — and the Public Defender’s Office is planning to make its case before the budget committee today for an extra $73,137 to finance a full-time paralegal, spokeswoman Tamara Barak Aparton said.
As the program’s future is ironed out, Brady and Babus are plugging away through the summer. Most students in the program are in summer school, which means Brady and Babus continue to ensure clients are taking the right classes and receiving appropriate credit, and conducting visits to students’ homes and schools.
The pair is also working with the San Francisco Achievement Collaborative Team, which provides integrated treatment and education at Civic Center High School for substance-abusing youths in the juvenile justice system.
The program has been touted on numerous occasions for its success.
It was selected to receive the Mayor’s Fiscal Advisory Committee’s Managerial Excellence Team Award in March, and was also named 2014 Program of the Year by the California Public Defenders Organization.