Lee Robbins (JD '14) is the recipient of a 2014 Equal Justice Works Fellowship, which will fund her legal advocacy in support of children’s educational rights.
Equal Justice Works, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, honors lawyers who have developed new and innovative legal projects that serve communities in need of assistance. Robbins was selected for her plan to provide direct legal representation and outreach to ensure that low-income, elementary school-age children with mental health needs have the necessary educational and behavioral services. She will receive a salary, loan repayment assistance and training, and will work from the offices of local disability rights group Equip for Equality during her two-year tenure.
“In many schools across the country, the promise of our federal special education law is not being realized, and many children with disabilities are not receiving the education that they deserve,” Robbins said. “Even though we have a robust federal special education law, children's legally mandated special education services are frequently not provided or are inappropriate to meet their needs.”
As part of her project, Robbins will provide legal assistance to families during negotiations at school-based Individualized Education Program meetings and administrative due process hearings. She will also conduct legal rights trainings for families and local organizations, and will host office hours at community-based mental health providers in order to reach families who are seeking assistance.
Robbins enrolled in the College of Law with an interest in education advocacy. She received a Schiller, DuCanto & Fleck Family Law Center scholarship and worked as a research assistant to Professor Mark Weber, exploring special education law. Prior to law school, she taught high school special education through Teach for America in Washington, D.C. As a second-year student, Robbins secured an internship with Equip for Equality through DePaul's Field Placement Program and, when she learned that the organization was seeking candidates for an Equal Justice Works Fellowship, she took on the challenge.
“Equip for Equality receives numerous phone calls from families of young students with mental health issues who are concerned about the lack of appropriate behavioral and social-emotional supports at school,” Robbins said. “News reports discuss on a daily basis how violence in Illinois communities detrimentally impacts children and can cause mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. These reports, coupled with cuts in state funding for mental health services, supported the need for the project.”
Robbins worked closely with Equip for Equality supervisors to develop her project proposal and solicited feedback from current and former fellows, mentors, friends, professors and former internship supervisors. Following several rounds of edits, she submitted her application to Equal Justice Works during finals of the fall 2013 semester and received the fellowship in January. Her project will be funded by the Chicago Bar Foundation, a sponsor of Equal Justice Works.
In addition to remaining involved with DePaul's Family Law Center, Robbins has served as a student advocate in the Special Education Advocacy Clinic and the Poverty Law Clinic. "During my time at DePaul I have had many opportunities to hone my legal skills that will serve me well in my future work," she said.
Following graduation, Robbins hopes to establish herself as a resource in Illinois for families and advocates seeking to ensure children's educational rights: “Many children in Illinois classrooms experience mental health issues that negatively impact their academic success, and other children in our communities are at greater risk of developing a mental health issue due to experiences of trauma during childhood,” Robbins said. “Even though these issues are pervasive, children are not receiving the educational and behavioral supports that they need.”