Alumna Builds Organization to Ensure Access to Education for D.C.’s Youth

As a 1L, alumna Sarah Comeau ‘11 spent a summer abroad in The Hague studying in the heart of the international justice community. It was there that she discovered one of her passions – access to justice.

“The discovery of that passion ultimately led me to get into this work,” said Comeau, who today co-runs School Justice Project, an organization that she built from the ground up to provide court-involved youth with special education legal representation.

She first recognized the need for this type of legal representation and advocacy in her first position after law school.

(Sarah Comeau '11, pictured right, photo courtesy of Echoing Green)

As a JD Distinguished Fellow for the Juvenile Services Program at the Public Defender Service for D.C., she worked with juveniles in pretrial facilities. Next, Comeau worked as a lawyer with a small boutique law firm, working on court-appointed cases involving students and families of students involved in both the juvenile justice and abuse and neglect systems.

She quickly realized that there were many older court-involved youth—ages 17-22—that were falling through the cracks of the juvenile justice and education systems.

While committed to the system, Comeau says, these young people are often moved from facility to facility or receive inferior education in detention centers. Upon reentry, they often discover that their school records have been lost, none of the credits earned in a residential facility count toward a D.C. public school diploma, among other challenges, making the path to graduation frustrating and sometimes impassible.

“Nobody was representing their education needs,” said Comeau.

According to Comeau it is unclear how many court-involved students between 17-22 years of age have special education needs in D.C. However, she estimated, based on the data, that half of the students in the juvenile justice system currently fit this profile.

Together with Claire Blumenson, who had worked as an Equal Justice Works Fellow for the Public Defender Service of D.C., Comeau founded SJP to address this problem. The organization works like a public interest or pro bono law firm, providing no-cost special education legal representation to court-involved youth in D.C. It is their hope that they can decrease rates of recidivism and increase rates of graduation, post-secondary enrollment, and employment through this access to counsel and access to appropriate education and quality transition services.

The importance of SJP’s work was quickly recognized; In June, Comeau and Blumenson received an Echoing Green/Open Society Foundations Black Male Achievement Fellowship, providing $70,000 in seed funding for their work with School Justice Project. In October, they were awarded a Fair Chance partnership, which provides capacity-building services to local organizations serving children and youth. SJP raised $83,000 in December, with nearly half being provided by an anonymous donor.

SJP also has an impact litigation program and provides community outreach and legal trainings programs. According to Comeau, they are hoping to eventually expand SJP to multiple states and jurisdictions.

“The issue that we’re addressing is what we refer to as 'the second pipeline,' or the process of kids in the juvenile justice system being funneled right to the adult system,” said Comeau. “We hope to expand the dialogue of the school-to-prison pipeline, and want people to see that it involves the kids in the deepest end of the juvenile justice system.”