Aarti Sidhu hadn’t always wanted to be a lawyer; when she was younger, she wanted to be a teacher. But in college, as she learned more about the ways that systems were failing children, she realized she was more interested in finding solutions to those systemic challenges.
At the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, she found opportunities that allowed her to pursue her interest in youth and education. She joined the Youth, Education and Justice Clinic. She interned with Disability Rights Maryland and the ACLU of Maryland. She became connected to the Maryland Suspension Representation Project (MSRP), which was formed by a group of attorneys to expand legal representation for children pushed out of school through disciplinary measures. What she saw in her clinic and internships was that educators, administrators, and community members often didn’t fully understand school discipline policies, procedures, and the rights of students.
Studies show that across the U.S. students of color – especially black boys – and students with disabilities are disproportionately affected by negative bias when it comes to school discipline. Also, being suspended has been shown to increase the likelihood a student will drop out and even end up in juvenile and criminal justice systems. In Maryland, the state issued a ban on suspensions for students in pre-K through second grade. But what about the students in grades three through twelve? Many students and their parents don’t know what their rights are in the disciplinary process.
Working with her clinic professor and the attorneys at MSRP, Sidhu decided to further the work of MSRP by advocating for Baltimore City Public School students. She created Represent Youth: Baltimore School Justice Initiative. Sidhu will be working out of the Clinical Law Program at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. Through the project, Sidhu will directly represent students facing exclusionary school discipline – suspensions or expulsions. Most students do not have legal representation during these proceedings. Along with providing direct representation, she will work to engage parents and the community about their children’s rights in these situations. She also hopes that once she develops a relationship with a school and its principal that they will see her as an ally – helping to educate them about the law and proper procedures for school discipline.
“At the end of the day, we all want what is best for the students,” Sidhu says. “I don’t want teachers and principals to see me as an adversary, but I do want to educate them and hold them accountable.”
As an OSI Community Fellow, Sidhu will be able to work full time representing students in disciplinary hearings and engaging the community around their rights. The Fellowship also affords her the freedom to work with a more diverse set of students without being limited by income or other qualifying criteria often set in federal grants. She will also work to develop relationships with community groups and churches so she can help parents advocate for themselves and their children.
Sidhu’s goal ultimately is to lower the number of suspensions in Baltimore City by holding the system accountable, which is why the community engagement and education piece is so important.
“As a clinic student attorney, I had one suspension rescinded,” Sidhu says. “And, it felt like a huge victory because I know that school will pay more attention to the suspension process going forward.”