UT Establishes Children’s Advocacy Network

The University of Tennessee College of Law has received a grant from Equal Justice Works to establish a Children-s Advocacy Network.

Equal Justice Works is the national leader in funding and spearheading access to justice programs in American law schools and beyond, UT Law Dean Tom Galligan said.

The grant provided funds for the UT College of Law to hire an EJW fellow to work with attorneys, students and faculty to develop a back-up center for children and youth.

UT becomes the first southern law school to join the Law School Consortium Project, a national enterprise designed to bring into closer collaboration law schools and lawyers in small and solo practices and legal services, public interest, and pro bono practice, Galligan said.

The first project of the Children-s Advocacy Network will be a Lawyer-s Education Advocacy Resource Network (LEARN) that will provide education and support to attorneys working on children-s educational law issues, he said.

“There is great need for legal representation on behalf of school age children and youth at both the state and national levels,” said Galligan. “Both regular and special education students, particularly low-income students of color and students in rural areas, suffer from lack of adequate representation.”

Dolores Whiters of Champaign, Ill., is the college-s EJW fellow and will begin work Sept. 1, Galligan said.

Whiters has been an education law attorney and coordinator of Parent and Student Advocacy with the Champaign Urbana Area Project since August 2003. She received a law degree from the University of Illinois in May 2003.

She will work with Dean Hill Rivkin, professor and UT law project director; Doug Blaze, professor and director of the college-s Advocacy Center; and other faculty and staff to organize, develop training, and provide litigation and advocacy support for Tennessee public and private lawyers who represent students in education cases.

The ultimate goal is to become a dynamic back-up center for a close-knit network of lawyers and advocates who are seeking to make public education better for all students in Tennessee, Rivkin said.

“The sparse availability of legal representation for this underserved population has become overwhelming,” said Rivkin, who headed the college-s effort to obtain the EJW grant.

“The focus of our first project will be inner-city students and rural students who are disproportionately impacted by school district policies and practices that foster exclusion and unequal educational opportunities,” he said.

Rivkin and Whiters will establish priorities for LEARN and phase in the education and litigation support for the project, including developing intake and litigation strategies, preparing manuals and support materials, and participating in Rivkin-s academic courses on education advocacy.

“LEARN not only will support litigation and administrative dispute resolution but also will stimulate community legal education and organize groups of parents and students,” Rivkin said.

Rivkin has been a children-s advocate for much of his professional career. For the past 10 years he has taught UT law courses in “Advocacy for Families and Children” and “Public Interest Law and Lawyering.” As a member of the UT Legal Clinic faculty, he has done considerable juvenile defense work.

Rivkin also has engaged in public interest education litigation, including a current class action case on behalf of all students in the Knoxville school system who were expelled or suspended without being provided alternative education. He co-counseled a case that held that students with disabilities cannot be prosecuted by schools for school-related infractions without compliance with the requirements of federal disability law.

“Our ultimate goal is to firmly establish this project in the UT College of Law, the bar, the advocacy community, and the university,” Rivkin said. “We hope to develop a project that will be replicable in other law schools nationwide.”