A School Lawyer’s Perspective on Helping Students with Legal Issues
Thursday, 16 August 2018
School lawyer Angus Woodward, Senior Lawyer (Youth Law Clinics) at WEstjustice, discusses how schools are uniquely placed to compensate for, and to try to counteract, the entrenched disadvantage and inequality some young people face.
Supporting students with legal issues: The rationale for schools to engage with what is happening for their students outside of school?
Schools are uniquely placed to compensate for, and to try to counteract, the entrenched disadvantage and inequality some young people face. As a school lawyer, I work with students who are coming to school every day with significant legal and social issues weighing heavily on them. Sometimes this might be as innocuous as having a Myki fine which, perhaps surprisingly, can cause significant anxiety for some students. Other times it is horrific abuse or neglect.
Unfortunately, the reality is that teachers are sometimes unaware of these issues. Or, if they are aware, they are often under-resourced and lack the time or capacity to properly engage and support these students, and doing so is at the expense of the rest of the class. The consequence of this gap is that often the same expectations of ‘behaviour’ at school are placed on these students as others who are not dealing with complex legal and social issues. At best this is unrealistic. At worst it is entirely unfair.
Having now worked as a school lawyer in three schools, including a mainstream P-12 school and two alternative RTO schools, I have observed a preparedness to engage with what is happening for students outside of school have profoundly positive outcomes, both in terms of student wellbeing and in terms of resolving their legal issues. In the case of the mainstream school this is facilitated by the allocation of funding to multiple well-being services, including funding an in-school psychologist, a GP, a nurse, and supporting our school lawyer program.
In the case of the alternative RTO schools, who seem to attract much less funding for these wellbeing programs despite enrolling the students most at-risk of disengaging from education and arguably with more complex needs, their ability to support students outside of school hours is partly as a result of good-will. These schools naturally attract the support of external services such as ours, which target social disadvantage, that are willing to wear the costs internally. In my case this is largely through philanthropic funding.
Generally, when law and schools are discussed in the same breath, particularly by lawyers, the message is around liability and risk management. Perhaps for this reason policies for dealing with student ‘misbehaviour’ seem to be increasingly risk-averse. In my experience this has the effect of creating red-tape for schools and barriers, particularly for teachers and wellbeing staff, to properly support students and protect their legal rights. It also limits their ability to be creative and innovative in their attempts to engage more difficult students (e.g. through early-intervention programs, after-school and weekend activities, excursions etc.).
One example which comes to mind is when a school fails to address cyber-bullying between their students occurring outside of school, perhaps out of fear of creating potential liability for behaviour which is very difficult to monitor. In extreme cases, when a school refuses to engage in these circumstances parents resort to legal action and the school, rather ironically, ends up having to manage a Personal Safety Intervention Order which says that the two students cannot be within 5 metres of each other, which has obvious practical and legal implications. Another example is the way a school chooses to deal with drug-use or absenteeism, either from a health and wellbeing perspective or from a purely punitive one.
In these scenarios and more generally, the way young people are treated when they have done the wrong thing can have a profound impact on their trajectory in life. For many of the students I work with, particularly those with complex criminal and family violence matters, it is patently obvious that without the support of dedicated wellbeing staff and a school that genuinely engages with what is happening for them outside of school, they would almost certainly have dropped-out or been expelled. It is widely understood and I think accepted that this increases the likelihood of these students interacting with the justice system and encountering future legal problems. This is certainly consistent with the young people I work with who are not in school. Ultimately, this is the rationale behind funding and resourcing schools to undertake this work.
Angus Woodward is a senior youth and school lawyer at WEstjustice (Western Community Legal Centre), where he has worked for just over two years. Angus works at two independent VCAL schools in the Western suburbs as an in-house school lawyer, where he provides case-work and legal education sessions to students. Many of the students at these schools have dropped-out or been expelled from mainstream schools and have diverse and complex needs. Angus also manages a number of outreach youth clinics in Newport, Hoppers Crossing and Sunshine.
Prior to his work at WEstjustice Angus worked in the litigation branch of the Victorian Government Solicitors Office. Whilst at this government law firm Angus was seconded to the Victoria Police Civil Litigation Unit, and worked closely with Victoria Police, Corrections Victoria, DHHS and other government department clients. Angus also has a range of youth work experience. This includes youth work in remote Aboriginal communities, working as an assistant teacher at Melbourne University Early Learning Centre, and working as a youth camp counsellor in Canada.
Angus has a passion for social justice, and has elected to work as a lawyer in the community sector because he sees it as one of the most direct and profound ways he can create and advocate for social change. Angus’ previous work with government, particularly Victoria Police, as well as his experience working with diverse groups of young people, has put him in a unique position to advocate for the rights of young people, particularly those with a history of poverty, disadvantage and vulnerability who come into contact with the justice system. Having worked as a school lawyer in three schools Angus also has unique insight into the interaction between students’ legal needs outside of school, and how these can impact on their schooling and on the school community.
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