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SEPTEMBER 2012 NEWSLETTER - Suzanne Lawson
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WLALA Foundation 2011 Public Interest Grant Recipient Suzanne Lawson's Grant Project

by Suzanne Lawson


As a 2011 Fran Kandel Public Interest Grant recipient, I received the WLALA Foundation’s support to complete an educational pamphlet which serves as a guide for self-represented families attending daytime curfew citation hearings in Los Angeles County. The pamphlet also includes information about resources, such as tutoring, special education, mental health, and substance abuse services, which can help families address some of the underlying causes of truancy and reduce school dropout among citation recipients.

As I began work on the project, my initial goal was to understand the daytime curfew citation and hearing process so I could describe it in a clear manner in the pamphlet for citation recipients. To this end, I spoke with Los Angeles County Sheriff’s officers, who described the issuance of citations to me, and I met with Juvenile Court Referees, who explained the current hearing process to me and allowed me to observe citation hearings. Of course, these discussions and observations and the pursuit of my first objective were complicated by the fact that I had started this project at a time when many changes were taking place in regard to how such citations were issued and how hearings were conducted. Significant changes to the citation and hearing practices were underway to address the concerns of community organizations which felt that citations were being issued unfairly to students on their way to school and that some students were accumulating extensive fines—something easily done given that students might sustain the citation fine of a few hundred dollars, in addition to potentially incurring late fees and non-appearance fees. As these changes took place, I incorporated them into the pamphlet to ensure that parents and students who read the information would understand their newly determined rights, including the ability to seek alternatives to fines, such as community service or the completion of a school report indicating that a student had not had an unexcused absence for sixty days.

My second, but no less important, goal was to understand the needs of the students, most often minorities, who were receiving these citations. I spoke with community activists and attorneys who saw room for improvement in the issuing and handling of daytime citations. I consulted with community organizations who were troubled by the knowledge that the issues that often lead to truancy can include unaddressed educational, mental health, and substance abuse problems and that a common problem that results from truancy is an increased likelihood of becoming a high school dropout. Ultimately, the brochure reflected the newly adopted changes in the citation and hearing processes, as well as the needs of the students who have been receiving these citations. The brochure was translated into Spanish, to reflect the significant number of students and parents who require translators when attending citation hearings. The brochure also informs readers that a translator is available at the hearings. The brochure includes information for accessing organizations that provide resources to address many of the causes of truancy.

Once the brochure was completed, in an effort to share the information with community members, especially those who would benefit from the information, I sent the information to a number of Los Angeles-based community service organizations and Mental Health Advocacy Services, Inc. posted the brochure on its website. I also made two presentations of the material. I spoke with the students and faculty of a continuation high school class for students from troubled backgrounds, and a group of students in an after-school program that emphasizes dropout prevention and college preparedness at All People’s Community Center.

At my first presentation to the continuation high school class, I received a warm welcome from the teacher who explained that he wanted an extra copy of the pamphlet to pass along to a student who had amassed over one thousand dollars in daytime curfew citation fines. As I began my presentation, I asked the class whether they had heard of daytime curfew citations or known of someone who had received one. A female student eagerly volunteered that she had received one and proceeded to ask questions throughout the presentation. At my second presentation, before the after-school program, no one in the program had received a citation, but the students shared that they had known people who had received daytime curfew citations and they asked questions about the material throughout the presentation. Presenting the information that I had compiled for the project reignited my commitment to supporting members of low income and underrepresented communities in order to increase their access to government and legal services and their facility with accessing such services on their own behalf and on the behalf of others in their communities.

The Fran Kandel Public Interest Grant provided me with much more than the opportunity to complete this project and educate daytime curfew citation recipients about how to best resolve their citations. I also received a warm welcome into a community of Los Angeles attorneys who use their skills, knowledge, and compassion to promote social justice and improve access to legal resources for underserved communities. I am especially indebted to and inspired by Cathy Ostiller and Patricia Daza, Grant Committee Co-chairs, and Pam Marx of Mental Health Advocacy Services, Inc., a non-profit Los Angeles-based law firm providing direct services to adults and children with mental health disabilities, which served as my sponsoring organization for the project. I am grateful for their invaluable support in the development of the project and for their example of commitment to community service through the legal profession. I would also like to thank the WLALA Executive Committee and all of the WLALA members for their dedication to upholding the public interest values and related good works of this laudable organization and making projects such as mine possible.

To view the pamphlet, please CLICK HERE. For Spanish, CLICK HERE.

Suzanne Lawson is one of WLALA's 2011 Fran Kandel Public Interest Grant Recipients.