Young people under the age of 18 may be experiencing homelessness alone for a number of reasons, such as abuse or family conflict over sexual orientation and gender identity. And while there are existing services that could help, current law prevents underage youth from consenting to many of these services without a parent – despite the reality that seeking their parents’ consent is often not an option.

We worked with Rep. Kay Khan and Sen. Adam Gomez to draft and file H.192/S.94, legislation that would enable youth between the ages of 15 and 18 to provide consent for themselves and access critical supportive services. And in exciting news, the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities held a hearing on this bill on October 16th!

Now, we need to make sure it stays at the top of our legislators’ minds to keep it moving through the legislative process. Take action today and urge your legislators to support H.192/S.94, An Act Allowing Certain Minors to Consent to Shelter and Supportive Services!

Executive Director Deb Silva testifies before the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities.

Underage youth who cannot access the services they need are extremely vulnerable to victimization and violence. As the 2022 Massachusetts Youth Count found, respondents who left home as minors were less likely to be sheltered, have a high school degree, or receive the help they need.

H.192/S.94 would ensure unaccompanied minors between the ages of 15 and 18 years old can meet their immediate survival needs and assist them on their journey towards stability. And with queer and BIPOC youth disproportionately experiencing homelessness, this bill is an important step towards establishing increased supports for some of our state’s most marginalized young people.

We need to keep building support among our lawmakers to ensure the Joint Committee issues a favorable report for this bill! Please take this one-minute action and urge your legislators to make H.192/S.94 one of their priorities this session.

 

Keep informed & stay involved!

Stay tuned for more opportunities to take action and support Massachusetts families and youth by liking us on Facebook and following us on X (formerly Twitter) and Instagram! Check out our website for our most recent news.

To support our work, please consider giving a donation today.

Thank you for advancing social justice in Massachusetts!

 

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Boston, MA – In response to Governor Healey’s Executive Order No. 615 promoting increased language access, Deborah Silva, Executive Director of Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, issued the following statement:

Language barriers at state agencies prevent hundreds of thousands of people across the Commonwealth from accessing the resources and information they need to care for themselves and their families. We applaud the Healey-Driscoll Administration for taking action to affirm the language access rights of all residents and expand equitable access to the many critical services provided by state agencies.   

This Executive Order complements and aligns with goals long expressed by language access advocates, and we are grateful for the administration’s clear commitment to addressing this issue. As we continue working with our partners in the Mass Speaks Coalition to pass the Language Access and Inclusion Act, we look forward to building on the strong foundation laid by Governor Healey today and establishing robust accountability measures that make sure our government is accessible to everyone, no matter what language they speak.”

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MA Appleseed is driven by a mission to promote equal rights and opportunities for Massachusetts residents by developing and advocating for systemic solutions to social justice issues. Through policy analysis and research, coalition building, education and training, community organizing, and advocacy, the nonprofit seeks systems-level change so all Massachusetts families and youth can exercise their legal rights, build pathways out of poverty and crisis, and thrive. Responding to emerging and enduring inequities, MA Appleseed addresses an array of complex issues including self-representation in the civil justice system, language access for immigrant families, the school-to-prison pipeline, and youth homelessness. To explore recent research, find resources, sign up for opportunities to take action, or donate, please visit massappleseed.org.

 

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By Asia Foland

Contaminated rooms, unbearable class temperatures, and… metal detectors? Boston Public Schools are still working to meet students’ needs. Police are not going to help.

In June of 2022, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, former BPS superintendent Brenda Cassellius, chair of the Boston School Committee Jeri Robinson, and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Jeff Riley signed the “Systemic Improvement Plan” (SIP) targeting the district’s most urgent problems: among them late buses, failures to equitably serve students with disabilities, and deteriorating facilities.

Last month during a state education board meeting, DESE commissioner Riley called Boston’s progress on implementing this plan “incomplete” (2). He noted empty staff positions across the district, including leaders for the multilingual education office, a “coordinator of problem resolution” to address school safety and parent concerns, and senior staffers for special education (2,3).

More than half of Boston’s schools were built before World War II and since 2007, only four projects for new renovations and schools – out of three dozen – have been approved (1). And BPS has not yet renovated school bathroom facilities throughout the city, despite pledging to do so under the SIP (2). The consequences of this disrepair are well-known: oppressively hot classroom temperatures, crumbling walls and ceilings, and exposure to environmental contaminants.

And yet, amid BPS’s mounting public and legal obligations, how have certain Boston leaders responded?

With calls for police.

Though BPS removed police from schools in 2021, four Boston city councilors published a public letter this past January urging Mayor Wu to reinstate police and metal detectors in schools (4). In their letter, the city counselors — Erin Murphy, Michael Flaherty, Ed Flynn, and Frank Baker — declared the need for these security measures despite acknowledging the public’s “differing opinions” surrounding their use.

But this isn’t a matter of “differing opinions.” 

Visible and physical security measures in schools have been overwhelmingly discredited. According to a report by Citizens for Juvenile Justice, an analysis of 15 years of metal detectors in schools came up with “insufficient evidence that their use decreased crime or violence in schools,” instead finding “their presence made students feel less safe” (5).  

Yet in their letter, Boston City Councilors labeled metal detectors “non-invasive.” This is far from reality: for those forced to walk through them every morning before they can learn, metal detectors are invasive – physically and psychologically. And when we make our schools feel like prisons, our children feel less secure. 

Police presence also has no positive impact on school safety outcomes, according to a meta-analysis of 12 studies done by the WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center (6). Instead, Black and brown students are disproportionately targeted within their schools, specifically for low-level offenses that in no way require law enforcement (7). In a district where students of color make up 85% of student enrollment, placing police in schools would detrimentally diminish an encouraging learning environment.  

But there is another path Boston can take. Evidence-based approaches, centered around restorative justice and preventive measures, have been proven to reduce student arrests and foster a safe learning space. These include conflict resolution, personal reflection, community reconciliation, and more. And they’re not a new phenomenon: when Denver Public Schools implemented restorative practices in 2011, suspension rates decreased by 44% (8). 

These strategies would relieve our city councilors’ safety concerns by identifying the underlying causes of conflict instead of their visible outcomes. As Leon Smith, Executive Director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, remarked, “It would be unfortunate to see Boston move in a regressive way, doubling down on approaches that research shows are not effective rather than shifting resources to approaches shown to both address student need and improve school safety and climate” (9).  

Fundamentally, not only does law enforcement ineffectively ensure school safety compared to restorative action, but it also fails to address the urgent dangers posed by Boston’s declining facilities. Police officers cannot protect students from exposure to asbestos or lead in the neglected buildings they patrol. Police officers cannot ventilate classrooms or keep them within tolerable temperatures. Students deserve real safety at school – not just the illusion of it. And with such blatant neglect on display, it would be outrageous to funnel crucial funding and resources toward failed law enforcement measures. 

To their credit, Boston has made recent progress in meeting their students’ needs. But that does not mean we cannot hold them accountable. This moment is crucial for Boston Public Schools, and we must be diligent. Using reactionary force does not ensure student safety in schools. And when the district is still struggling to serve all students, allocating time and resources toward ineffective discipline would only set them back. It’s time for Boston leaders to expand their definition of school safety and support investments that genuinely address our students’ needs.

 

Sources:

  1. Massachusetts spends thousands more on school construction aid for white students than for students of color, https://www.bostonglobe.com/2023/05/27/metro/massachusetts-school-construction-aid/
  2. One year into school improvement plan, state official grades Boston’s progress ‘incomplete’: https://www.wbur.org/news/2023/06/27/boston-school-improvement-plan-one-year-later-progress-update
  3. Another year, another incomplete grade for Boston Public Schools: https://www.bostonglobe.com/2023/07/06/opinion/boston-public-schools-jeff-riley-blistering-criticism/
  4. https://twitter.com/ErinforBoston/status/1611476972076507136
  5. Mowen, Thomas and Freng, Adrienne. “Is More Necessarily Better? School Security and Perceptions of Safety among Students and Parents in the United States”. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7205221/
  6. Stern, A., & Petrosino, A. (2018). What do we know about the effects of school-based law enforcement on school safety? San Francisco, CA: WestEd. https://www.wested.org/ resources/effects-of-school-based-law-enforcement-on-school-safety
  7. Thurau, L. and Wald, J. Controlling Partners: When Law Enforcement Meets Discipline in Public Schools, 54 N.Y.L. Sch. L. Rev. 977 (2009-2010). https://digitalcommons.nyls.edu/ nyls_law_review/vol54/iss4/5/ 
  8. Cregor, Matt and Damon T. Hewitt. “Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline: A Survey from the Field.” (2011).
  9. Boston Public Schools quietly negotiating with city police to formalize relationship: https://www.bostonglobe.com/2023/02/16/metro/boston-public-schools-quietly-negotiating-with-city-police-formalize-relationship/

 

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It’s budget season, and that means we have important opportunities to fight for necessary funding and overdue policy change.

This year, we’re supporting two key amendments filed by Senator Kennedy:

Amendment #555 would increase funding for housing and supportive services for unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness (budget line item 4000-0007) from $11 million to $12 million. This increased investment is vital to match the scale of need across the state and help create a sustained and effective response to end youth homelessness.

Amendment #851 would ease the process for unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness to obtain state identification, an initiative that has previously seen widespread support in the legislature. Again and again, service providers report the difficulty their young clients face in obtaining ID and how this barrier worsens their daily struggles. Young people need state ID to apply for jobs, access public services, open a bank account, and accomplish a host of other important life tasks. It’s long past time to get this common-sense reform signed into law.

It is impossible to overstate the lifetime toll homelessness can take on young people, increasing their risk of poor health outcomes, exposure to violence, susceptibility to exploitation, and dropping out of school. This is especially urgent right now and as young people continue to endure trauma and upheaval in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, making sure they have the resources they need to build pathways toward stability and thrive is crucial.

The budget is a reflection of our values, and we cannot let this opportunity to support our state’s most vulnerable youth slip by. Please take action today and urge your State Senator to co-sponsor and support budget amendments #555 and #851.

 

Keep informed & stay involved!

Stay tuned for more opportunities to take action and support Massachusetts families and youth by liking us on Facebook and following us on Twitter and Instagram! Check out our website for our most recent news.

To support our work, please consider giving a donation today.

Thank you for advancing social justice in Massachusetts!

 

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Boston, MA, May 3, 2023 – Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a Boston-based research and advocacy nonprofit, welcomed Kerry L. Timbers and Ryan LaRue to its Board of Directors during the organization’s Board Meeting on February 13, 2023.

Kerry L. Timbers, Sunstein LLP

Kerry L. Timbers (he/him/his) is Managing Partner at Sunstein LLP, an intellectual property law firm based in Boston. Mr. Timbers has extensive experience in IP litigation involving complex patent disputes across a range of industries, including life sciences, technology, and consumer-oriented products. Recognized by his peers as a top-notch litigator, Mr. Timbers has been named a Best Lawyer, Super Lawyer, and a WTR 1000 “Recommended Individual.”

At Sunstein, Mr. Timbers collaboratively developed and co-leads the Practicum Program, providing underrepresented students from New England Law | Boston a network of support and a safe space to address how implicit bias and stigma can prevent new lawyers from “bringing their authentic self” to the workplace. MA Appleseed’s Staff Attorney Kayla Pulliam was a previous participant in the program, and Mr. Timbers recently accepted the American Bar Association’s “Alexander Legal Ambassador Award” on behalf of Sunstein in recognition of the Practicum’s contributions to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“I am delighted to join the MA Appleseed’s Board of Directors and look forward to continuing to support their mission to promote equitable access to justice and opportunity through research, collaboration, and advocacy,” said Mr. Timbers. “It is also wonderful to have the chance to connect with Kayla Pulliam again, who I was fortunate to meet while teaching our Practicum Program.”

Ryan LaRue, StoneTurn

As a Managing Director at StoneTurn, Ryan LaRue (he/him/his) assists and advises clients and counsel with forensic accounting, complex litigation, and compliance and monitoring matters, as well as regulatory enforcement inquiries and internal investigations. A Certified Public Accountant (CPA) licensed in the state of New York and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE), Mr. LaRue brings his financial expertise and enthusiasm for collaboration to Appleseed’s work.  In 2019, he was honored by the American Institute of CPAs as a member of the Leadership Academy’s 11th graduating class and was selected for his exceptional leadership skills and professional experience.

“I am honored to join the Massachusetts Appleseed Board and look forward to supporting the organization as it continues to do important work for our community,” said Mr. LaRue. “I am thoroughly impressed with the team and my fellow Board members, and I am excited to work together to support Massachusetts Appleseed’s mission.”

“Kerry and Ryan each have a unique and critical skillset and we are honored to welcome them to our Board of Directors,” said Melanie Todman, Chair of the Board. “We are facing an exciting opportunity to build on recent victories this year, but are simultaneously facing new challenges that threaten to roll back years of progress. As we dig in to hold onto the ground we’ve gained and expand MA Appleseed’s reach and impact across the Commonwealth in this urgent moment, their contributions will immeasurably strengthen the organization at every level.”

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About Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice

MA Appleseed is driven by a mission to promote equal rights and opportunities for Massachusetts residents by developing and advocating for systemic solutions to social justice issues. Through policy analysis and research, coalition building, education and training, community organizing, and advocacy, the nonprofit seeks systems-level change so all Massachusetts families and youth can exercise their legal rights, build pathways out of poverty and crisis, and thrive. Responding to emerging and enduring inequities, MA Appleseed addresses an array of complex issues including self-representation in the civil justice system, language access for immigrant families, the school-to-prison pipeline, and youth homelessness. To explore recent research, find resources, sign up for opportunities to take action, or donate, please visit massappleseed.org.

 

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Liberty Mutual Media Contact:
Molly Stern
Molly.Stern@libertymutual.com
617-470-4898

MA Appleseed Media Contact:
Madeline Poage
madeline@massappleseed.org
617-482-8686

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

March 7, 2023

Boston, March 7, 2023 – Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a Boston-based research and advocacy nonprofit, announced that it has received a $50,000 grant from Liberty Mutual Foundation to expand MA Appleseed’s project providing access to justice for youth experiencing homelessness. The Foundation also provided a $5,000 supplemental operating grant to reflect the impact of inflation on the economy.

“Liberty Mutual Foundation is a leader in the work to prevent and end youth homelessness and we are so grateful for this investment in our initiative to build a more robust legal safety net for young people experiencing homelessness,” said Deborah Silva, Executive Director of MA Appleseed. “Liberty Mutual’s partnership will allow us to help break down the barriers that trap young people in crisis and give them the tools they need to stay safe and housed for good. The generous supplemental operating grant further demonstrates Liberty Mutual’s understanding of our shared challenges as rising costs have forced nonprofits to do more with less.”

State data and reports from frontline service providers paint a clear picture of the way legal problems regularly intersect with a young person’s life and can impede their efforts to meet basic needs. A common barrier points to the inability for unaccompanied youth to easily obtain a state ID, which they need to access housing, employment, public benefits and more. Similarly, young people aging out of foster care lack traditional support systems and as many as 40 percent of former foster youth will experience homelessness, often because they are not aware of their legal rights.

MA Appleseed took a step towards addressing this problem in 2021 when the organization published the Massachusetts Homeless Youth Handbook, a state-specific resource guide for youth experiencing homelessness. The handbook includes 20 chapters on common legal questions to help young people understand their rights and responsibilities as well as direct them to support systems across the state. Under the guidance of Liberty Mutual’s pro bono program, 29 members of their legal team donated a total of 460 hours to draft chapters of the Massachusetts handbook. The resource was also developed in partnership with law firm Baker McKenzie, attorneys from Boston Scientific, community experts, and youth with lived experience.

“Housing insecurity is a complex social justice issue that can disrupt every aspect of life,” said Melissa MacDonnell, President of Liberty Mutual Foundation. “For youth still trying to figure out how to transition into adulthood, it can be a devastating setback. Liberty Mutual is proud to partner with Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice to help young people navigate challenging times – so they can build the sustainable and promising future they deserve.”

Youth homelessness is a signature program within Liberty Mutual’s corporate giving strategy, committing over $24 million to youth homelessness efforts since 2018. The company has partnered with organizations that have helped more than 3,800 young people exit to stable housing and nearly 1,200 young people find transitional housing.

This grant will help fund the expansion of MA Appleseed’s Legal Education, Advocacy, and Protections (LEAP) Project for Youth Experiencing Homelessness, enabling the organization to reach more young people directly and raise greater awareness of the Homeless Youth Handbook, increase educational programming around this know-your-rights guide, and ensure staff can keep it up to date as laws change and new resources become available. In addition, the organization plans to use the Handbook as a foundational tool to create a legal network of pro bono attorneys available to dedicate their time and expertise to youth experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity.

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About Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice

MA Appleseed is driven by a mission to promote equal rights and opportunities for Massachusetts residents by developing and advocating for systemic solutions to social justice issues. Through policy analysis and research, coalition building, education and training, community organizing, and advocacy, the nonprofit seeks systems-level change so all Massachusetts families and youth can exercise their legal rights, build pathways out of poverty and crisis, and thrive. Responding to emerging and enduring inequities, MA Appleseed addresses an array of complex issues including self-representation in the civil justice system, language access for immigrant families, the school-to-prison pipeline, and youth homelessness. To explore recent research, find resources, sign up for opportunities to take action, or donate, please visit massappleseed.org.

About Liberty Mutual Insurance

At Liberty Mutual, we believe progress happens when people feel secure. By providing protection for the unexpected and delivering it with care, we help people and businesses embrace today and confidently pursue tomorrow.

In business since 1912, and headquartered in Boston, today we are the sixth largest global property and casualty insurer based on 2020 gross written premium. We also rank 78 on the Fortune 100 list of largest corporations in the US based on 2021 revenue. As of December 31, 2022, we had $50 billion in annual consolidated revenue. 

We employ over 50,000 people in 29 countries and economies around the world. We offer a wide range of insurance products and services, including personal automobile, homeowners, specialty lines, reinsurance, commercial multiple-peril, workers compensation, commercial automobile, general liability, surety, and commercial property.

For more information, visit www.libertymutualinsurance.com

 

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact Person:
Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice
Madeline Poage
madeline@massappleseed.org

Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice in Boston, Massachusetts has been selected for a one-time grant from Michael Jordan and Jordan Brand’s Community Grant Program, an initiative of its joint 10-year, $100 million Black Community Commitment (BCC), created in 2020.

Jordan Community Grants are awarded once a year to grassroots, non-profit organizations that are driving action and leading sustainable solutions to improve Black lives in their neighborhoods. As part of the 2023 BCC Community Grant cycle, and in honor of Michael Jordan’s 60th birthday, $2.3M in grant funds were awarded to 48 organizations, including MA Appleseed with a local connection to the initiative’s four key focus areas of economic justice, education, narrative change, and social justice.

Building on the efforts of the BCC, MA Appleseed will use the grant funds to take action through its mission to promote equal rights and opportunities for Massachusetts residents by developing and advocating for systemic solutions to social justice issues. Additionally, MA Appleseed will invest further in expanding its community organizing strategies to center Black and brown girls in conversations around the school-to-prison pipeline, amplify student voices, and effect positive policy change in schools that is grounded in restorative justice.

“MA Appleseed is honored to have been chosen for a one-time grant by Michael Jordan and Jordan Brand to support our initiatives advancing social justice through powerful policy change,” said Deborah Silva, Executive Director of MA Appleseed. “The COVID-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on how entrenched racial and economic injustices destabilize the most vulnerable among us. As communities continue to recover from the trauma of the last few years, this is a pivotal moment where we can build on recent victories and continue to expand equitable access to justice and opportunity in our courts, our schools, and at every level of public life.”

“Creating more equitable futures for Black people starts with an intentional journey. So, as our Jordan Brand family celebrates Michael’s 60th birthday, we are thrilled to welcome these organizations committed to accelerating progress in their communities,” says Craig Williams, Jordan Brand President.

This is the third cycle of the Community Grant Program as part of Michael Jordan and Jordan Brand’s commitment to the Black community. 

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About Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice

MA Appleseed is driven by a mission to promote equal rights and opportunities for Massachusetts residents by developing and advocating for systemic solutions to social justice issues. Through policy analysis and research, coalition building, education and training, community organizing, and advocacy, the nonprofit seeks systems-level change so all Massachusetts families and youth can exercise their legal rights, build pathways out of poverty and crisis, and thrive. Responding to emerging and enduring inequities, MA Appleseed addresses an array of complex issues including self-representation in the civil justice system, language access for immigrant families, the school-to-prison pipeline, and youth homelessness. To explore recent research, find resources, sign up for opportunities to take action, or donate, please visit massappleseed.org.

 

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Media Contact: Madeline Poage,
madeline@massappleseed.org
617-482-8686

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

December 26, 2022

Boston, Dec. 26, 2022 – Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a Boston-based research and advocacy nonprofit, announced it has received a $15,000 donation from global law firm Goodwin that will help expand its work to advance racial and gender justice in Massachusetts schools.

“Goodwin is a leader in the Boston legal community, and we are extraordinarily lucky to count the firm among Appleseed’s longtime partners,” said Deborah Silva, Executive Director of MA Appleseed. “This generous donation will provide critical support as we dismantle the policies and practices that harm girls of color caught in the intersection of racial and gender-based discrimination whose lives are disrupted by unjust school discipline. We are so grateful for Goodwin’s continued investment to help us move the needle on entrenched social justice problems.”

Racial disparities in education have long persisted, and COVID-19 left many students struggling with pandemic-related trauma and learning gaps. With the resulting surge in behavioral and mental health issues among students, concerns for school safety and subsequent calls for increased punitive discipline and policing have reemerged in the public discourse. MA Appleseed has joined fellow advocacy groups in condemning the use of harsh, exclusionary discipline and are instead pushing for solutions that center students’ health and well-being.

“Goodwin is thrilled to continue supporting MA Appleseed and its important mission,” said Alison Douglass, Goodwin partner. “As a member of MA Appleseed’s board, I have a front-row seat to their incredible work in the areas of social, racial and gender justice, and look forward to continuing our firm’s long-standing partnership with the organization.” 

This donation will help fund the expansion of MA Appleseed’s initiative to end the criminalization of girls of color, who face disproportionate levels of discipline that push them out of the classroom. Following the publication of their latest community-led report examining this issue, the organization has launched a multi-pronged advocacy campaign to create safe and affirming school cultures grounded in restorative practices where every student can succeed. The firm’s donation will also help MA Appleseed deepen its grassroots organizing power as the nonprofit continues to grow its community engagement capacity and expands its impact in Gateway Cities like Malden, Lawrence, and Lowell.

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About Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice

MA Appleseed is driven by a mission to promote equal rights and opportunities for Massachusetts residents by developing and advocating for systemic solutions to social justice issues. Through policy analysis and research, coalition building, education and training, community organizing, and advocacy, the nonprofit seeks systems-level change so all Massachusetts families and youth can exercise their legal rights, build pathways out of poverty and crisis, and thrive. Responding to emerging and enduring inequities, MA Appleseed addresses an array of complex issues including self-representation in the civil justice system, language access for immigrant families, the school-to-prison pipeline, and youth homelessness. To explore recent research, find resources, sign up for opportunities to take action, or donate, please visit massappleseed.org.

About Goodwin

We are in the business of building authentic, long-term relationships with our clients, who are some of the world’s most successful and innovative investors, entrepreneurs and disruptors at the convergence of and within the life sciences, private equity, real estate, technology and financial industries. Our immersive understanding of these industries — combined with our expertise across high-stakes litigation and dispute resolution, world-class regulatory compliance and advisory services, and complex transactions — sets us apart. At Goodwin, we are committed to building a more diverse and inclusive community. Learn more about our Diversity, Equity + Inclusion efforts.

 

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According to current news reports, a staff member of the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden recently cited an eighth-grader for wearing a hijab, which was deemed a “uniform infraction.”

Deborah Silva, Executive Director of Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, released the following statement:

“Policies like this harm students – there’s simply no other way to put it. Students cannot be expected to succeed if parts of their identity are judged and punished every time they enter the classroom, and the damage this has on students’ mental health, confidence, and emotional well-being can be severe. Dress codes are rarely neutral policies, perpetuating racist, misogynistic, and homophobic norms. Their enforcement feels especially inappropriate in schools where students are learning how to express themselves and discovering who they want to be.”

“Just a few years ago, the school’s harsh discipline of the Cook sisters for wearing their hair in braids with extensions motivated lawmakers to pass legislation banning hairstyle discrimination. To see yet another student endure this kind of over-policing just weeks after the CROWN Act was signed into law shows that Massachusetts still has a long way to go towards making sure our classrooms are welcoming and inclusive spaces for all.”

Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice published its latest community-led report, “I Just Want to Learn”: Girls of Color and the School-to-Prison Pipeline in Massachusetts, in July 2022. The report explores stories from girls of color about the impact of exclusionary discipline on their lives and touches on the role dress codes play in fueling racial and gender-based disparities.

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Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice is a nonprofit driven by a mission to promote equal rights and opportunities for Massachusetts residents by developing and advocating for systemic solutions to social justice issues. Through policy research, community collaboration, and statewide advocacy, the organization seeks systems-level change so all Massachusetts families and youth can exercise their legal rights, build pathways out of poverty and crisis, and thrive.

 

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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, self-represented litigants faced an uphill battle in the civil justice system. For a person unable to afford an attorney and forced to walk into court alone, something as small as knowing how or where to file a form could be a confusing, anxiety-inducing process.

Then COVID-19 hit. Thousands lost jobs, fell sick, and struggled to stay afloat. The skyrocketing legal needs of Bay Staters overwhelmed existing services. Courthouses shuttered, shifting to conduct court hearings virtually over the phone and through Zoom.

At the beginning of the pandemic, MA Appleseed began exploring the impact these virtual hearings had on self-represented litigants. We chose to focus on small claims debt collection cases where self-representation is the norm and the consequences of a poor outcome can be severe. People can lose vital income, get saddled with a reduced credit score that haunts them for years, and even face threats of eviction or incarceration.

Law students from Western New England University gave up their school breaks, volunteering to spend hours observing virtual small claims sessions across the state. The students followed up by interviewing the litigants they observed, gaining more insight into their firsthand experience. With project partners, we examined the patterns and recurring problems that emerged from these observations.

This research project culminated in our most recent collaborative report, You’re Still Muted: Access to Justice Barriers in Massachusetts’ Virtual Small Claims Court. Our findings are all-too familiar. At every turn, those who are already the most vulnerable when interacting with the court – low-income litigants, individuals with disabilities, limited English proficient litigants – face barrier after barrier in their attempts to engage with the legal process and achieve a fair outcome. In addition to technology-related hurdles, like litigants dropping out of hearings unexpectedly, a lack of standardization across court practices increases accessibility problems. Deeply entrenched inequities embedded in financial and legal institutions and the compounding effects of the COVID-19 pandemic mean this disproportionately harms communities of color, further widening the racial wealth gap.

Lack of a law degree and the inability to afford to hire an attorney should never be the reason a person loses their livelihood, their home, or is driven deeper into poverty. And as a state with vast racial wealth inequality, taking steps to eliminate these barriers is critical.

Some of the changes we recommended are simple, such as requiring clerk magistrates to introduce themselves and explain their role at the start of every court session. Others may require more coordination, like working with local legal service providers to establish “lawyer for the day” programs where there aren’t any now. Several recommendations seek to remedy issues of basic fairness. For example, standardizing how we treat litigants who appear late to a remote session or fail to show up at all, whether they’re a well-financed debt collection company or a single mother without an attorney.

Solving this problem is possible and the potential benefits are enormous. A study from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation found that closing the racial wealth gap would grow the state’s economy by $25 billion in just five years. When people successfully navigate the civil justice system and resolve their legal problems, they can break out of cycles of upheaval and help build stronger, thriving communities. As for the courts, improved accessibility during virtual hearings will increase court efficiency and improve public perception of the courts as a fair institution.   

Court systems across the country have a reputation for being slow to change. They are built on tradition and precedence. But the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to rapidly adapt in the face of emerging crisis. The Massachusetts Trial Court rose to that challenge and showed that it can be done – that change is possible. At the height of the pandemic, we saw how court staff and Court Service Center managers worked with creativity and dedication to meet the needs of the thousands of people who sought their help. Amid statewide aspirations for an equitable pandemic recovery and the reality that disparities burdening low-wage workers and communities of color have intensified, these efforts to transform the courts and meet the goal of “justice for all” must continue. 

Virtual court, in one form or another, is here to stay. The rapid transformation that the civil justice system went through has provided Massachusetts with a treasure trove of data, information, and powerful lessons about the role technology can play in our future, both good and bad. And unless the needs and experiences of our most vulnerable litigants are centered in that future, a fair outcome in court and all the collateral benefits that come with it – stability, prosperity, and opportunity – will remain accessible only to those able to afford it.

 

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