Profiles in the Law

Failure is Not an Option

By Linda Campillo

Brian Baker is an attorney with a mission as he takes on a project in Portland Public Schools that many might view as overwhelming.

Called The Education Project, Baker's program represents Portland Public Schools minority students facing suspension or expulsion from their middle schools. Through a grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, Baker plans to represent 50 minority middle school students during the 2001-2002 school year.

Data indicates that African American kids represent 17 percent of students, and yet they are involved in 33 percent of all suspensions - nearly three times the rate of Caucasian youths, Baker explains. 'The goal is to work with parents and district administrators to identify options for these kids.'' Discretion exists for suspensions and expulsions, so Baker sees room for assessing students and negotiating alternatives leading to a successful education. Otherwise, these students are at risk of ending up in the juvenile justice system. 'The goal is to hopefully see fewer kids out of school, and either in alternative schools, getting special education services or in school programs.''

Working with students is nothing new to Baker, who is a senior attorney with Juvenile Rights Project Inc. in Portland. For about three years, he has coordinated educational advocacy for the Juvenile Rights Project on behalf of youths involved with Services to Children and Families and the Multnomah County Juvenile Court. He provides training in special education law throughout the state to foster and adoptive parents, CASA staff, Services to Children and Families staff, juvenile court counselors, attorneys and judges. He holds a B.A. from Rutgers University and is a 1992 Williamette University College of Law graduate.

As part of The Education Project, he also will be conducting four half-day trainings for legal representatives and community members about the educational rights of students.

'Attending to children's educational needs is an area that Brian has developed himself and has made a huge difference,'' says Angela Sherbo, senior advocacy attorney with the Juvenile Rights Project and Baker's supervisor on the grant project. 'His project takes a multidisciplinary approach to ensure that kids are educated.'

Baker plans to use his background in special education law to form a collaborative approach in helping minority students develop a plan for educational success. 'I frequently see tension between schools and parents, so part of it will be to be a third voice,' Baker explains. 'Part of it is going to be a wrap-around approach for the kid so that everyone is working as a team.'

A lot of the students Baker has dealt with have had unidentified disabilities which needed to be assessed. Such identification can be a dual-edged sword; while helpful at times (for receiving appropriate services), there is also a trend towards over-identification among minority students, worrying parents who don't necessarily want their children 'labeled,' or moved to non-mainstream school placements. However, if the child has behavioral disabilities, identification is crucial, because special education laws offer protection against removal from the school setting.

Referrals for the project can come from anywhere, even the students themselves, but for the most part Baker sees the referrals coming from judges, probation officers or community partners. One concern is to not make the system litigious, and Baker has formed an advisory committee of community partners to assist with community outreach. 'The big challenge will be two-fold: I presume there's going to be some resistance from schools in having kids back who have behavioral problems, …and people may be hesitant in dealing with a children's advocacy lawyer.'

He adds. 'Schools will welcome it if it opens better paths of communication with parents and community partners.' One of Baker's first tasks is to find 50 middle school students to help, and the other is to get the services the students need to get back on track in education. Whether he can do that in one school year remains a question. 'I think it's going to be longer term. My hope is we can identify some trends so we can go back to the commission and identify barriers to educational success.'

Fifty students is the project target says Sherbo. 'We know the need is out there. If we can prevent the kids from leaving school, we can hopefully prevent them from entering the juvenile justice system.'

'It is kind of a monumental task, and this is only a third of my work,' Baker says. In addition to the project, Baker continues carrying some special education cases along with his work as a statewide education advocate. Baker also spends time volunteering with the Feral Cat Coalition, the Classroom Law Project and Reedwood Shelter.

'We can't lose focus. It's not an 'us or them' type of situation. School failure affects all of us.' Baker's mission is to work for school success for all kids. 'I really hope that my clients will stabilize in the middle school programs and transition to high school successfully and end up with diplomas. I'm very passionate about this.'

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