NCCU School of Law hosts series to educate community on rights

North Carolina Central University School of Law held a panel on special education student rights titled “Educational Plans in the North Carolina School System.”

The panel, held last Wednesday Oct. 20, was one of many that they will be hosting as a part of their Virtual Justice Project, which aims to address the under-representation of African American lawyers and lack of access to justice for low-income and marginalized communities.

One way they are hoping to promote justice is through the Know Your Rights seminar series, which has the goal of informing students and community members about their complex legal rights. When the Virtual Justice Project started in 2010, they offered a panel quarterly throughout the year. Now, they offer two programs a month for the Know Your Rights series.

The set-up is usually the same for each panel: a specifically designated legal topic discussed by approximately two to five experts, who reach multiple audiences across the state and other areas of the country using videoconferencing.

Organizers at NCCU always try to focus panels on relevant issues to the Durham community and invite speakers with varied perspectives to best serve their diverse needs.

“[Our number one hope] is to get as much community and student participation as possible,” said Program Coordinator Deria Hayes, who is a Durham native and a professor in the NCCU School of Law. “We want [the panels] to really have a number of voices in the discussion so that we can continue to foster community inclusion, which is very important to us.”

For this specific program, the panel consisted of Durham Public Schools administrator Kristin Bell, parent advocate Nadiah Porter, and two lawyers from the Legal Aid of North Carolina Cari Carson and Jasmina Nogo.

The panelists each did a brief presentation on their areas of expertise regarding special education students, who they all agree are currently being under-served by communities and public school districts in the state.

“We want to encourage and assist parents to make sure that the child gets to the services [the state] has to offer,” said Dorothy Hairston Mitchell, NCCU School of Law professor who moderated the discussion.

Carson and Nogo, the two lawyers from Legal Aid of NC, debriefed the audience on North Carolina state law as it stands for special education, specifically what individualized education plans (IEPs) and behavioral intervention plans (BIPs) for students are, who qualifies for them, and what the testing and application process looks like.

With their detail-oriented presentation, the two lawyers made it clear that the poor educational services for students with mental or physical disabilities is not an issue caused by a lack of clear legal guidelines.

Rather, the issue is caused more by a lack of strong implementation practices in the schools themselves.

Bell, a DPS administrator who is the executive director for the Exceptional Children’s Department, discussed IEP and BIP procedure in the school system, barriers to implementation, and warning signs for parents to look out for to evaluate if their child’s school is not following the law.

Last, advocate Nadiah Porter talked about how parents and communities can be better activists for their children who need these types of plans to succeed.

The combined presentations, which were packed in with information, took up the entire hour time slot with a few minutes left for audience questions. There was a sense of urgency in each presenter’s voice, who had a great deal of content to get through in their allotted time.

“It is a lot of working parts because sometimes you get a topic, and it’s just like, ‘Oh my gosh, there is such a wealth of information here,’” Hayes said. “But you have to try to pack it in all in in an hour because we are mindful of people’s schedules on the week day so that we can keep it convenient for everyone.”

“With this particular program,” she continued, “I knew it would probably grow into something bigger, and so this is kind of the introduction.”

That said, audience members seemed to find the presentation valuable, and many were vigorous note-takers.

Take Calvin Anderson, an education and business consultant who recently moved from New York.

He attended the meeting interested in hearing about any new researched-based methods that could better inform the community on effective interventions for special education students.

“All of education is research-based,” said Anderson, who is also the CEO of Student Empowerment Initiative, Inc. “Sometimes you have outside educators who come to support because they have this research knowledge- they can’t do everything. At the end of the day, parents need more support and advocates in the community. We need to all be better advocates for technical interventions.”

Another audience member came for the purpose of gathering research for a legal paper on the issue. Third-year law student Lance Foster is actually working under program moderator Hairston Mitchell, and he found the hour-long presentation helpful for beginning his research.

“It definitely gave me some guidance as to things I should be looking for, issues I’m going to run into, what laws to start with, and things to consider from the parent advocacy side,” Foster said. “One thing I really liked is that they had a variety on that panel, so you had professors, you had lawyers, administrators, advocates… it was a really all-encompassing thing, and it’s going to help me a lot.”

For the upcoming Know Your Rights program, Hayes expects an audience with an especially wide variety of needs, which presents her with the challenge of creating a varied panel. In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the panel will be focusing on issues of assault in the home and is titled “10 Things to Know about Domestic Violence.”

Hayes says although the panels typically attract students from a variety of NCCU programs, they also get a great deal of community members and leaders. For the October event on domestic violence, she says they could get survivors of domestic violence, recent victims of assault, or even perpetrators of domestic violence who are looking to get more educated on the legal aspects of the issue.

“We are going to attract a diverse audience here, and we want someone to speak to each participant in the audience,” Hayes said. “When we find out we are not speaking to someone here, we look at the service and say, ‘Okay, how can we address this kind of content on this particular topic?’”

“That way,” she said, “we are striving for inclusion where everyone can get something out of it.”

This domestic violence panel will be on Wednesday Oct. 11 at 6 p.m., and prior registration on this website is required. A full schedule of panels for the remainder of the school year can also be found on the website, although Hayes said some panels that will cover recently developed issues are yet to be scheduled, specifically programs on DACA and natural disaster preparation.

Besides the Know Your Rights series, the Virtual Justice Project also offers online pre-law courses for undergraduates interested in pursuing a legal education. To read more about the Virtual Justice programming, visit their website here.