Dismantling the “School to Prison Pipeline”

In Los Angeles County alone, there are 25,000 children in foster care and up to half have a disability. However, few receive the special education they require. Resultant academic struggles and behavioral problems cause nearly 30% of foster children to “cross over” into the juvenile delinquency system by their early teen years. Often, they spiral lower, drop out of school and face unemployment, homelessness and incarceration.

Equal Justice Works Fellow Alaina Moonves-Leb is working to dismantle this “school to prison pipeline” through a two-year project hosted by the Alliance for Children’s Rights and sponsored by Munger, Tolles & Olson and Edison International. Since September 2011, Ms. Moonves-Leb has worked to help 81 foster children by:

  • Advocating within the schools and juvenile dependency and delinquency courts to identify at-risk youth and ensure educational needs and services are secured.
  • Advocating at manifestation determination Individual Education Plan meetings, expulsion hearings and delinquency courts.
  • Training caregivers and stakeholders about due process protections against unfair disciplinary measures imposed upon disability-related behaviors.

“Through Munger, Tolles & Olson’s sponsorship, the Alliance is able to reach foster youth who have fallen into the delinquency system at a critical point when a real difference can be made,” Alliance CEO Janis Spire said. “By advocating for an appropriate education, these youth will be better equipped for success.”

One of Ms. Moonves-Leb’s success stories is that of Chidozie*, a youth who was sent to juvenile hall and several group homes for his involvement with fighting and drugs at a young age. Ms. Moonves-Leb looked at the underlying causes of his behavior and frustration, including his inability to complete assignments and his effort to look tough rather than dumb in front of his peers.

By gathering his records, requesting testing and advocating for him in multiple meetings, Ms. Moonves-Leb was able to secure placement for Chidozie in a private school with intensive academic and behavioral support. Soon Chidozie became known around campus not for his negative behaviors, but for his successes. He received all A’s and B’s in his classes and was a star on the football and basketball teams. His delinquency case was closed in February 2012 and Ms. Moonves-Leb worked with the district and school to help him graduate in June. Ms. Moonves-Leb was honored to be the only person Chidozie asked to attend the ceremony.

After being named Teach for America’s Special Education Teacher of the Year, Ms. Moonves-Leb decided to become a lawyer to seek results for at-risk children that she could not achieve in the classroom. She received her JD from the New York University School of Law in 2011.

The Equal Justice Works fellowship competition selects passionate lawyers who have developed innovative legal projects that can serve communities in desperate need of legal assistance. In 2011, there were 45 fellows selected nationwide.

The Alliance for Children’s Rights provides free legal services to foster children and protects the rights of impoverished and abused youth in L.A. County.

*last name not used to protect his privacy