Previously, I wrote optimistically about Putting an End to the School to Prison Pipeline. I suggested systemic approaches to this horrific problem, such as implementation of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. As promising as this approach is, it does not solve the problem for children who are currently caught up in the School to Prison Pipeline.
Recently, I had the opportunity to work with an excellent local public defender, Debbie Stahl, who used a new approach to push back against the School to Prison Pipeline on behalf of her 14 year old client with multiple disabilities. As often happens in such cases, the court ordered a competency evaluation, and a psychologist met with the child for an hour and determined that he was competent to stand trial. Ms. Stahl learned that this psychologist made no inquiry into her client’s special education needs and failed to review his special education records.
After Ms. Stahl reviewed her client’s records and met with her client’s special education teacher, she concluded that there was substantial evidence that her client could not competently decide whether to accept a plea offer. Nor, could he effectively assist her at trial. So, she asked if I would review his records, meet her client and his teacher and testify as a special education law expert, with additional expertise on the ethics of representing a child with a disability. We both knew that this approach was somewhat experimental, but decided it was worth trying.
After I reviewed the boy’s special education records, and met with him and his teacher, I concluded that he could not make an informed decision about the plea offer, nor could he effectively assist his attorney during the trial. Indeed, his Individualized Education Program (IEP) required his school to provide him a note taker, and was replete with documentation that he was unable for focus for more than 10 minutes at a time, and often acted as if he understood something, when in fact, he did not.
Upon hearing my testimony, the court accepted me as an expert, and determined that Ms. Stahl had presented sufficient evidence to discredit the prior evaluator’s finding that the child was competent to stand trial. Accordingly, he ordered a new evaluation by a different psychologist.
While this particular case is not over, it does illustrate the creative ways in which lawyers can bridge the gap between special education and juvenile justice in an effort to connect them in ways that disrupt the School to Prison Pipeline. Hopefully, we and others can do this more often, and both schools and prosecutors will refrain from putting many children with disabilities through the School to Prison Pipeline unnecessarily.