Mary Willis, a third-year student at the University of South Carolina School of Law, will be published in the 2016 issue of the Brigham Young University Education and Law Journal, ranked as the top education law journal in the United States, according to the Washington and Lee Law Journals Rankings Project (http://lawlib.wlu.edu/LJ/index.aspx). Titled “Utilizing Prosecutorial Discretion to Reduce the Number of Juveniles with Disabilities in the Juvenile Justice System,” Willis’ paper argues that prosecutors should consider special education histories when making decisions that involve juveniles with disabilities.
“According to my research, of the thousands of children arrested each year, at least one in three has a disability, ranging from specific learning, emotional, and mental disabilities to other speech or language impairments” said Willis. “Research also indicates that students with emotional disabilities are three times more likely to be arrested before leaving high school than their non-disabled peers. This creates a disproportionate number of children with disabilities within the juvenile justice system.”
Her paper goes on to suggest that a high proportion of youth in the juvenile justice system have either never been identified as having a disability or have been misidentified. Willis also argues that schools, though required, are failing to provide a free appropriate education in accordance to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Implemented by Congress in 1975, the IDEA preserves the rights of all children, including those with special education needs, to a free and appropriate public education. The IDEA provides both procedural and substantive rights to children with disabilities and their parents.
Willis argues that prosecution is not the appropriate first step when school districts fail to identify and provide proper services to a student with disabilities. Rather, when school districts fail to identify a child with disabilities and that child commits a minor offense, the school should first be required to evaluate the student and provide appropriate services under the IDEA.
As a result of her practical and scholarly experience, Willis has realized the influential role that juvenile prosecutors play in cases dealing with disabled juveniles and how that can affect the rest of their lives.
“Juvenile prosecutors are uniquely situated to work with school districts to reduce the impact that the school-to-prison pipeline has on students with disabilities,” said Willis. “Prosecutors can utilize their discretionary charging authority to make an independent inquiry of whether a juvenile suffers from a disability that likely contributes to his or her misbehavior. They can also ensure that students with disabilities are provided services pursuant to the IDEA.”
Willis admits she wrote the paper because of her passion for advocating on behalf of children. It was this same passion that led her to join the School of Law’s Children’s Law Certificate program, which offers students the ability to concentrate in children’s and family law. Her experiences in the program—including participating in the Juvenile Justice Clinic and an externship with the Honorable Paul W. Garfinkel the Charleston Family Court—allowed Willis the opportunity to analyze legal issues facing juveniles with disabilities from both an academic and practical perspective.
A native of Cumberland, Maine, Willis looks forward to pursuing her passion for children by advocating as a family or education lawyer. Following her graduation from law school in May 2015, Willis will begin a one-year judicial clerkship with the Honorable G. Ross Anderson of the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, in Anderson. After the completion of her clerkship, she intends to continue her legal career in Charleston, South Carolina.
“As a student still in law school and about to enter the field of practice, it’s definitely exciting to have my work published,” said Willis. “But more importantly, I am excited to get my ideas out there in the hopes that they will spark conversation about the issues facing these vulnerable children.”