Starting middle school can be a tough rite-of-passage for any child, but for the students in Meg Clifford’s Teach for America class, that transition would be especially difficult. In the Bronx, an area rife with poverty, drugs and crime, she knew her fifth-graders would face a number of obstacles along their way to graduation.
To help them prepare for the challenges ahead, she held tutoring sessions after hours and on holidays, showing them that they can and will succeed.
“I was amazed by how hard my students were willing to work—and how much of an influence I could have on them,” Clifford says. “But as a teacher, I only had that year to make an impact and couldn’t protect them from slipping into old patterns and undoing the work that we did. That’s when I realized that I wanted to have a broader impact on the challenges these kids are facing.”
Her three years of teaching at an inner-city school galvanized her decision to become a lawyer, a profession that would allow her to make a significant dent in the school-to-prison pipeline, a national trend whereby children with disciplinary referrals are funneled out of schools into the juvenile justice system.
“I want to do what I can to keep kids engaged in school, and protect them from the mistakes they make,” Clifford says. “Whether they want technical training or a Ph.D., I don’t want a criminal record to haunt them and stand in their way of achieving their goals.”
To help dismantle the pipeline, the DDCE partnered with the Law School’s William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law to fund Clifford’s four-year research fellowship position. Now as Clifford’s wrapping up the last arm of her project, she has already helped a number of students—and even adults—get past their legal barricades and work toward a better future.
As part of her project, she has focused on zero-tolerance penalties for infractions such as school ticketing and suspensions. In schools across Texas, students are ticketed for missing class or for misdeeds that would typically warrant a trip to the principal’s office. Students charged with Class C misdemeanor tickets must appear before a county or municipal judge and can face fines of up to $500. The overwhelming majority of these students are in homes that are classified as economically disadvantaged.
“Kids need to take responsibility for their actions, but making them pay court fines that should be going toward school supplies, food and clothes is not the way to do this,” Clifford says.
Under Texas law, students who are charged with a Class C misdemeanor are not provided with a court-appointed attorney. As a result, they almost always plead guilty or no contest in court. She found that many of her clients often have legitimate reasons for their “offenses,” such as chronic illnesses, learning disabilities and mental health issues.
Guilty or not, the majority of these children have no other choice but to pay the hard price—both financially and psychologically. That “guilty” label has a way of creeping into the child’s psyche, causing them to believe that they really are criminals, Clifford notes.
“At the end of the day, these kids and their schools are all on the same team and have the same goals,” Clifford says. “Kids don’t start out in school wanting to drop out and go to prison—and schools don’t want that for these kids either. We need to find a way to get the schools and the students to work together.”
One way to do this is to install early intervention models in schools with the most at-risk students. The Law School’s Youth Court program targeted Webb Middle School in Austin’s underserved St. Johns neighborhood. In partnership with the DDCE, the program works as an alternative disciplinary measure for students who would otherwise be facing zero-tolerance penalties. Through peer-run hearings and other activities, the participants gain in-depth knowledge about the consequences of their actions and learn about the benefits of staying in school and out of the criminal justice system.
When she’s not supervising Youth Court, Clifford is at the courthouse defending students who have been saddled with tickets that can come back to haunt them well into adulthood. And if that doesn’t keep her busy enough, she’s also helping both students and adults expunge tickets from their records so they can finally break down the legal barricades that are keeping them from getting into college or landing a job.
She recalls a past client who was more than qualified to become a teacher, yet a background check kept standing in his way. Now that she successfully expunged a careless mistake he made as a teenager from his criminal record, he’s currently student teaching and well on his way of achieving his career goal.
“These kids have so much that they’re up against—and by the time they figure out what they want to do in life, they’re unable to follow through with their plans,” Clifford says. “I don’t want something like being poor in the 1980s and not being able to cover a check to hold them back from achieving what they want most in life.”
Although Clifford has seen a great deal of progress in the lives of her clients and Youth Court students, her work has only just begun. When asked why she’s so committed to breaking down barriers to success for underserved children and adults, she recalls a conversation with her former law professor Dr. Gregory J. Vincent, who is also the vice president for diversity and community engagement.
“Back when I was in his class, I remember Dr. Vincent told me something that has fueled my work,” Clifford says. “He said that as a large state university, it is our obligation and responsibility to support the community that supports us to promote a diverse and prepared college population. And at the School of Law, it’s also our responsibility to promote and support a diverse law school-ready population. His words continue to resonate with me, and I’m so glad to be where I am today.”