Before she arrived at Stanford Law School, Tess Bissell had supported kids in tough circumstances as a volunteer court-appointed special advocate. But participating in the Youth and Education Law Project clinic as a second-year student in early 2022, she landed on a particularly difficult case: Bissell’s client, a high-school senior with a disability enrolled in special education, was at risk of being pushed out of her public school and into a placement that wouldn’t meet her needs. “We believed her individualized education program was not being followed and her rights were being violated,” says Bissell, JD ’23. “Our task was to keep her in school so she could graduate.”
Bissell and her clinic teammates combed through the teenager’s education and disciplinary records and dove into studying education-rights laws, including the 1975 federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Ultimately, Bissell and her team settled with the school district after a marathon eight-hour mediation session. The student went on to graduate—and sent the clinic team a photo of herself in her cap and gown. “That was incredible,” says Bissell.
Most students in the Youth and Education Law Project, known as YELP, focus on helping kids faced with school expulsion and those in special education seeking classroom accommodations. “We attract law students interested in children, youth, and education advocacy, and who want to represent an actual client, standing next to the client in negotiation settings or administrative proceedings,” says William S. Koski (PhD ’03), YELP’s director and the Eric and Nancy Wright Professor of Clinical Education. Clinic clients, all of them low-income, are typically referred by legal-aid providers, probation officers, and social workers, though parents occasionally contact YELP after finding it online.
YELP grew out of the East Palo Alto Community Law Project, founded by a group of Stanford students in the mid-1980s who opened an office offering free legal services to residents in the economically depressed area near campus. The project took its current form 20 years ago and today is one of 11 clinics under the umbrella of Stanford Law’s Mills Legal Clinic. The pandemic, which forced elementary and secondary students to attend online classes and reduced access to instruction and support services, only added to the urgency of YELP’s mission.
“We’ve done a lot of work over the last year or two with kids with emotional and behavioral issues that stem from the damage the pandemic has done and the learning loss so many kids suffered,” says Koski.
Guided by Koski and Abigail Trillin, YELP’s clinical supervising attorney, students also gain experience in research and advocacy, contributing to briefs filed in cases with potential statewide impact. When she participated in YELP in the winter of 2022, Leanna Lupin Inserni, JD ’23, co-wrote an amicus brief for a case concerning due process in school discipline proceedings which, she notes, disproportionately affect students of color and those with disabilities.
“Courts and decision-makers don’t always know how schools and school discipline actually work,” says Lupin Inserni, a former seventh-grade English teacher in Los Angeles’s public schools. “We jumped at the opportunity to talk about those issues and the lack of due process within school discipline.” The case is pending in appellate court.
Other YELP students have worked on behalf of a national nonprofit advocating for transgender and nonbinary youth in residential treatment facilities. Many of those institutions lack policies on matters such as using students’ preferred pronouns and offering appropriate living arrangements, Koski says. Clinic students have also researched enrollment processes in Oakland’s charter schools to identify those with the most equitable and transparent policies and those that need to improve their practices.
YELP students say that serving an individual child or family is the most professionally rewarding—and emotionally draining work, noting that some clients have suffered trauma and struggle with severe anxiety. Lupin Inserni recalls a third-grade client who is non-verbal. Her team managed to negotiate a settlement in which the student’s district pledged to pay for him to attend a school that can better support him. It took months to find an open slot at an appropriate school, but as of mid-October, the third grader had been placed in his family’s first-choice school.
After graduating from Stanford Law, many YELP alumni have continued as youth advocates fighting for education rights. Some have become executive directors at legal-aid nonprofits or leaders at charter school organizations. Lupin Inserni says she’s particularly interested in a career in juvenile defense. For her part, Bissell expects to work in education-rights law in a government or nonprofit setting. “YELP has prepared me to jump into that work,” Bissell says. “I’m much more comfortable with education-law doctrine and have gained so many skills that I can’t imagine I would have learned in any other part of law school.” SL
Louise Lee is a former staff writer for The Wall Street Journal.