Sarah Bellinger '09 has been awarded an Equal Justice Works Fellowship for her proposal to create a Special Education Clinic in concert with Advocacy, Inc., of Houston, Texas. Bellinger begins her fellowship with Advocacy, Inc., a disability rights public interest organization, following her graduation from William & Mary Law School in May. For more than 20 years, the Equal Justice Works Fellowship Program has created partnerships among public interest lawyers, nonprofit organizations, and law firm and corporate sponsors to provide access to the justice system for underrepresented populations. Equal Justice Works also recruits attorneys with various experiences and backgrounds and provides them with a strong foundation on which to build a public interest career.
"Sarah is a person of amazing energy. She possesses a passion for children's advocacy that is truly inspiring," said interim Dean and Chancellor Professor of Law Lynda Butler. "I am delighted to see her chosen for the prestigious Equal Justice Works Fellowship program."
"Before coming to William & Mary Law School," Bellinger said, "I worked as a social worker, mainly with victims of domestic violence and rape. As clinical coordinator for Alliance Adolescent and Children's Services in Houston, a child-placement agency for children in foster care and the juvenile justice system, I saw the need for Special Education advocacy, as many of our children had unmet special education needs that crossed over into discipline problems. That experience sparked my passion for Special Education advocacy and inspired me to go to law school. After clerking for Advocacy, Inc., in summer 2008, I knew that this was the direction I wanted to take."
Bellinger graduated from Tulane University, New Orleans, with a bachelor of arts degree magna cum laude in history, and a master's degree in social work. At William & Mary Law School, she serves as Notes Editor of the William and Mary Journal of Women and the Law, has achieved honors in Legal Skills IV, is Co-Chair of the Public Service Fund, and Vice President of the Therapeutic Jurisprudence Society. Bellinger currently is enrolled in the Special Education Advocacy and Law course, taught by Adjunct Professors Pamela Darr Wright and Peter Wright. The new course and new Special Education Advocacy Clinic are part of the Law School's Parents Engaged for Learning Equality Initiative.
Advocacy, Inc. (AI) is a federally-funded nonprofit organization that provides civil legal services to persons with disabilities in Texas. Its mission is to combat discrimination against persons with disabilities and to advocate for them in accessing appropriate services and supports. The Austin office implemented a Special Education Clinic in 2008, with remarkable success. Sarah was able to attend training sessions for this clinic and to participate in the "School-to-Prison Pipeline" Project, which addresses the disproportionate representation of special education students in the juvenile justice system as a result of zero tolerance school discipline policies.
"The Special Education Clinic fits well within AI's mission," Bellinger said, "and AI will support me by hosting me in their Houston office, where the phones ring steadily with the calls of parents of special needs children. The caseloads of our staff in all regions of the state require their full attention and time. This project will take their direct services model, in which a limited number of parents receive intense, case-level, ongoing assistance from our staff, and expand it to serve many parents and children we would not ordinarily reach by training the parents themselves to become advocates, and training a large pool of volunteer attorneys to equip them further for special education meetings and proceedings."
During her two-year fellowship with Advocacy, Inc., sponsored by the Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation, Bellinger has set ambitious goals. She will provide direct representation to Special Education students at school and in court, and create a pro bono Special Education Clinic composed of private attorneys who will assist parents in obtaining or modifying Special Education services for their children. She then will work to establish a sustainable pool of lawyers who are knowledgeable about Special Education law and the process of advocating for Special Education services in schools. To that end, Bellinger will develop education and training materials for lawyers, advocates, and parents regarding Special Education law. She will also directly educate parents of children with disabilities regarding Special Education law, and about their right to Special Education services so they can become better advocates for their children.
"I hope to be able to reduce the number of students in Harris and its surrounding counties in Texas who receive inadequate Special Education services, and increase school compliance with IDEA requirements," Bellinger said.
The ultimate goal at the end of the two-year fellowship, she added, is to leave behind a committed group of attorneys who will carry on the work of the clinic, a training manual for attorneys, case workers and other advocates, and for parents and guardians.
"Sarah has demonstrated an exemplary commitment to public service," said Robert Kaplan, Associate Dean for Career Services and Public Service Initiatives. "The William & Mary Law School community is proud of her well-deserved recognition as an Equal Justice Works Fellow."
"Since the mission of Equal Justice Works is to create a just society by mobilizing the next generation of lawyers committed to equal justice," Bellinger said, "I hope to do my part to promote equal justice for these children and their families.
"It means a great deal to me to be awarded this Fellowship," she added. "With the help of Equal Justice Works, Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation, and Advocacy, Inc., I'm able to see my goals for going to law school come full circle. I was motivated to seek out a legal education because I wanted to become a Special Education advocate. I'm so thrilled that I will be able to achieve that purpose."