Sarah Comeau ('11)
Director of Programs & Co-Founder, School Justice Project
Tell us about your work at School Justice Project.
School Justice Project (SJP) uses special education law to ensure that older (ages 18-22) court-involved students with disabilities can access a quality education, both during incarceration and throughout reentry. Federal special education law guarantees students with disabilities access to education through age 21. However, court-involved students are routinely denied both education services and legal assistance to enforce their rights. I learned this quickly working alongside my co-founder during our fellowships inside DC's secure detention facilities while at the DC Public Defender Service. In fact, what we saw was a crisis: a lack of education leads to mass incarceration. Yet, we know that access to special education legal services can combat the crises of educational inequity and mass incarceration.
To address these crises—both of which disproportionately affect students of color and students with disabilities—SJP launched in 2013 through the Echoing Green/Open Society Foundations Black Male Achievement Fellowship. By integrating special education law into the juvenile and criminal contexts, SJP aims to increase access to education, decrease future court contact, and reshape the education and justice landscapes for older court-involved students with disabilities.
We are the only organization of our kind nationwide, and strive to achieve our mission through 3 key programs: Direct Representation; Community Outreach & Legal Trainings; and Systemic Advocacy & Policy. Through embedding in our clients’ underlying criminal defense case, we see improved court outcomes, including decreased incarceration, increased use of community-based alternatives to incarceration, and shorter jail/prison sentences. Through access to counsel, students are able to access both the justice and education they are routinely denied.
What activities and experiential learning opportunities were you involved in as a WCL student that helped you prepare for this work?
I had what I consider to be diverse experiences at WCL. From the more “traditional” law school activity of a Journal to experiencing WCL’s unique abroad offerings. Ultimately, the activities and experiential learning opportunities that I participated in during my time at WCL prepared me to not only obtain my dream job out of law school but also gave me the skills I needed to launch my own organization and create a new model of legal services.
My 1L year was probably pretty typical for a full-time student. I studied. I went to law school with the intentions of practicing international law, with a focus in post-conflict Africa. I was drawn to WCL because of their JD/MA dual degree program (I since dropped the MA). Keeping in line with what was then a desire to go international, I spent my 1L summer in WCL’s Hague program, studying international humanitarian law and learning about the international criminal courts. My 2L year was dedicated to international law as well. I was a Research Associate at Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG). It was halfway through this year that I discovered I wanted to become a public defender. I shifted my focus, and secured a 2L summer position at my criminal procedure professor’s post-conviction criminal defense firm in Maryland. I wrote onto the Journal of Gender, Social Policy, & the Law. I also got my comment published.
During my 3L year, I remained working for my professor for the first semester, participated in the Criminal Justice Clinic, and was a Note & Comment Editor. In my second semester of 3L, I was a research assistant for my clinic professor and I interned with now Chief Judge on the Maryland Court of Appeals, Mary Ellen Barbera. After law school, I was a post-graduate fellow in the Juvenile Services Program at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. Each of these experiences contributed to my development as an attorney and provided me with the skillset needed to identify a critical gap in legal services in DC and co-found and launch a legal services model to fill that hole.
What advice would you give public interest law students?
Be open to different experiences. While it is important to build a resume and get the experiences you need to enter your field of choice, if I did not have diversity of experiences and exposure to different activities, it may have taken me longer to become happy in my career. From a practical and employer standpoint, writing and research skills are very important. Do not be afraid to reach out to practitioners doing work that you think you may be interested in. Many of us would welcome a coffee with a law student to talk about our work. Take advantage of being in school, get to know your professors, participate in as much as you think you can handle without overwhelming yourself.