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Jill Tucker

The San Francisco kid caught stealing a cell phone at a mall during school hours didn’t get just one publicly funded lawyer to take his case. He got two.

One fought for him in court. The other stood up for him at school.

Taxpayers covered the cost for both, but city officials say the extra attorney tab was worth the cost: It kept the student out of jail and in the classroom, where he belongs and where he can get the services he needs.

The city program, which will receive a good-government award Tuesday, is a one-of-a-kind effort to help families of juvenile offenders navigate not only the legal system but also the complicated world of public schooling and the often elusive special-education services that can be the difference between a high school graduate and a dropout.

San Francisco started the Legal Education Advocacy Program, or LEAP, “to help kids stay in school,” said city Public Defender Jeff Adachi. “This is such an important resource for parents.”

The program, funded by a three-year grant from the federal Department of Corrections, offers the city $230,000 per year to pay for the extra full-time attorney, who is an expert in education law, along with a social worker devoted to the students in the program.

Seeking permanent funding

Almost 300 students, ranging in age from 10 to 19, have received the extra legal and personal support. The two LEAP staff members have conducted more than 850 school visits and dozens of home visits, in addition to making almost 400 appearances in court to update judges on the young people’s achievements.

“Nine out of 10 kids from the program are in school and are not getting in trouble anymore, so we know this works,” Adachi said.

With that kind of success rate, Adachi wants to find the money to make the program permanent.

LEAP will receive the city’s 2014 Good Government Award from SPUR, a nonprofit that focuses on civic issues.

“As far as I know, it’s the only (program of its kind) in a public defender’s office in the state,” Adachi said. “This is something I’ve always dreamed of.”

For years, law-breaking youths filled Adachi’s case files, children who often struggled at home and in school.

They needed more than an attorney to argue for them in front of a judge.

Many needed special-education services, tutoring, and medical and mental health care, but no one was making sure they got it.

“They need someone who’s got their back, really,” said Marc Babus, the social worker, or “education youth advocate,” who keeps daily or weekly tabs on each of the students.

Robert, a quiet, rugby-playing 16-year-old at Lincoln High School, was among the first participants in the LEAP program after landing in juvenile court when he was 12.

Because of his juvenile status and probation, Adachi’s office requested Robert’s last name not be used.

Robert had broken the law after exhibiting behavioral problems in school, where he had fallen far behind academically.

“I was lost,” he said of his class work. “I didn’t get it.”

Parents also grateful

Robert’s mother, Maggie Winterstein, who has a different last name, was lost, too.

“I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I wasn’t comfortable asking for things from the school.”

That’s not uncommon; many parents feel intimidated in meetings with school officials or teachers, especially when a child requires special-education services, Adachi said.

“And the school district doesn’t often have the resources to know what a child needs,” he said.

As Robert’s public defender stood with him in court, attorney Lauren Brady sat with him at school meetings, making sure Robert got the services he needed and was entitled to receive.

‘Getting what he needs’

With Brady at his back, he was reassessed for a range of disabilities and diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and given additional help, including smaller classes for a few of his courses.

Brady continues to attend meetings to evaluate his special-education needs, and social worker Babus keeps tabs on his attendance and grades. Like many of the students in the program – and indeed many teenagers – Robert’s progress comes in fits and starts. But he knows he’s not alone. And neither is his mother.

“I’m so lucky I’m in this program,” Winterstein said. “I’m so happy Robert is getting what he needs.”

Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter:@ jilltucker

Photo by Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle


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