Ameil (he/him/his) will fight for actualized student potential in the classroom by combatting exclusionary discipline policies at the individual and systemic levels in the return to in-person learning era of Chicago Public Schools (CPS).
Black and Brown students were six times more likely to be expelled or suspended than their White, CPS peers. Among these exclusions, charter schools were responsible for 19 of the top 20 expulsion rates in CPS in 2018. This was happening before COVID-19 laid bare disparities for CPS and low-income students, particularly students of color. Because of the substantial learning equity issues raised during the remote learning period, many CPS schools may feel pressure to ‘play catch-up’ through harsh policies meant to cut down on distractions. Return to in-person learning cannot be a return to business-as-usual practices with exclusionary discipline, and specifically within charter schools, which have more autonomy to practice punitive measures.
Ameil taught U.S. History and English on the Westside of Chicago at a public charter school for four years. He also served as a four-year advisor to a male advisory and coached the boys’ soccer team.
Ameil will represent students directly, working with community and legal organizations to gain a stronger understanding of the post-COVID-19 landscape in learning and disciplinary policies. Additionally, he will conduct Know Your Rights trainings for families, engage in policy advocacy, and potentially bring complaints of widespread rights violations to state and federal government oversight bodies.
In order to promote community safety and disrupt the cyclical nature of incarceration, Jack (he/him/his) will work to expand the use of restorative justice practices as an alternative to incarceration for young people in Chicago accused of committing violent crimes.
Chicago is a city gripped by a cycle of violence rooted in a history of segregation and community divestment. Residents in the city’s most neglected neighborhoods are subject not only to a disproportionate amount of violence, but also a disproportionate amount of harm by our legal system. One neighborhood, North Lawndale, suffers from a rate of violence that is three times the city’s average and despite a population of just 35,000, North Lawndale residents account for 12% of the state’s prisoners.
Located in the neighborhood, Lawndale Christian Legal Center (LCLC), provides holistic defense for North Lawndale juveniles and young adults accused of felonies. At the heart of LCLC’s mission is a belief in the power of community. LCLC is committed to using restorative justice practices to repair harm and build a healthier and safer community through their clients.
Jack’s experience working in Chicago’s underserved communities motivates his commitment to fight for a system that addresses the root causes of community violence.
During his Fellowship, Jack will build on the work of LCLC by representing clients and advocating for cases to be diverted to restorative justice solutions that will be directed by highly-skilled practitioners. Additionally, he will focus on raising awareness amongst community stakeholders about the efficacy of restorative justice as a more productive way to address community violence.
Our legal system conflates punishment with accountability and destroys lives in the process. I am committed to working for a system that seeks to eliminate, rather than perpetuate, harm by recognizing the humanity of all people.
Jack Saletta /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow
Maria established a mobile legal clinic to provide legal services and educational outreach to vulnerable military veterans throughout Florida. Her Fellowship aims to empower at-risk veterans to obtain employment, stable housing, financial security, and VA benefits they deserve.
Inadequate access to justice is an acute problem for Florida’s veterans due to a variety of reasons including mental and physical conditions, misinformation, inadequate outreach, and logistical obstacles. Moreover, veterans facing Post Traumatic Stress, Traumatic Brain Injury, and Survivors of Military Sexual Trauma may struggle to (1) access VA healthcare and benefits, (2) obtain employment, and (3) avoid homelessness and incarceration. The veterans mobile legal clinic eliminates these barriers by serving veterans where they are.
Fellowship Highlights to Date
In the first year of the Fellowship, Maria has:
- Provided legal services to over 50 Veterans throughout the State on a variety of legal issues, including family law, housing, guardianships, VA benefits, and discharge upgrades
- Met with six community stakeholder organizations, including members of the Florida Bar Military and Veterans Affairs Committee and other organizations providing legal services to veterans
- Promoted the mobile legal clinic project in various meetings throughout the state with stakeholders that included homeless coalitions, local service providers, community groups, legal services organizations, and national advocacy groups for veterans
- Established a collaborative relationship with the local law schools to create partnerships
- Completed a trial prep multi-day course with NITA and applied for VA certification
In the next six months, Maria plans to:
- Work with sponsors to increase the project’s pro bono capacity
- Work with grant writers to identify and begin to establish sustainability opportunities
As a family member of veterans who have served in every military branch, I understand veterans need access to legal services to minimize the negative impact combat-related trauma has on their lives and the lives of their family members.
Maria Ceballos-Zagales /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow
Will advised and represented low-income families to remedy violations found by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) of Chicago Public School’s (CPS) widespread delay and denial of special education services to potentially thousands of children with disabilities.
ISBE found that CPS implemented policies and procedures that systemically delayed or denied services to potentially thousands of students with disabilities. There are over 52,000 children with disabilities enrolled in CPS, many of whom were harmed by procedural violations that were designed to cut $29 million in special education funding. Will’s project identified those students who were harmed, ensured they receive the services to which they are entitled, and created supports to ensure that students have access to the services they deserve in the future.
During the two-year Fellowship, Will:
- Attained a leadership position with the Special Education Advocacy Coalition of Chicago (SPEACC), the group that brought the CPS violations to ISBE. He worked with CPS, ISBE, and other advocates to develop a remedial system that will automatically provide compensatory services to 10,515 students.
- Established a CPS Public Inquiry Hotline that provided free legal advice and information about what CPS did and whether their child might be eligible for extra services to nearly one hundred families.
- Developed numerous fact sheets to help spread awareness and information about CPS’s violations and presented webinars to parents/guardians on special education law generally, CPS’s violations specifically, and students’ special education rights during Covid-related school closures.
- Successfully advocated the ISBE Board extend their monitoring/oversight of CPS due to their violations.
Will plans to continue practicing special education law in Chicago and representing students with disabilities. He will remain involved with SPEACC and will continue serving as an advocate for students who were harmed by CPS.
I have seen how vital these services can be, and as a result, I am best suited to ensure that students within CPS have the same opportunities as those living elsewhere.
William Hrabe /
Equal Justice Works Fellow
Nina provided legal representation to students in grades K–12 who experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault.
An investigation into Chicago Public Schools (CPS) in 2018 uncovered a widespread failure to identify and appropriately address sexual misconduct and violence perpetrated against students. School-related gender-based violence can significantly affect a student’s mental and physical health, often negatively influencing academic outcomes. Nina’s project addressed the educational rights of these students through direct representation in Title IX and related matters. Because young people who have experienced sexual harassment and violence often have overlapping legal needs related to their trauma, Nina also provided support around special education and school discipline issues. As Title IX is often misunderstood or overlooked in K–12 educational settings, this project addressed a significant gap in legal services in the Chicago area.
During the two-year Fellowship, Nina:
- Provided direct representation and brief legal services to nearly 60 students, including working with schools to create or redevelop IEP/504 Plans and safety plans, advocating against push-out to alternative schools, assistance with the Title IX grievance process, representation in state court for students seeking protective orders, and support during remote learning
- Designed and launched a project analyzing the policies and procedures of public school districts in Cook County to evaluate for compliance with Title IX
- Offered Title IX trainings to students and other advocacy organizations and presented at a national education conference
Nina is now a staff attorney at Legal Aid Chicago, where she will continue practicing in the areas of education and sexual violence.
Karla empowered farmworker women who were victims of sexual harassment, violence, and gender discrimination in the agricultural industry through legal representation, education, policy advocacy, and collaboration with other organizations.
Need Addressed By Project
Every year, thousands of agricultural workers come to Illinois to harvest our fruits and vegetables. Knowing farmworkers have limited access to public benefits, education, and legal resources, employers often deny workers basic rights and fail to comply with labor requirements, including sexual harassment laws. As a result, farm-worker women are especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation and discrimination in the workplace.
During her Fellowship, Karla:
• Provided 28 clients with full legal representation on issues such as unemployment, sexual harassment, and immigration
• Collaborated with 25 organizations across Illinois to provide legal and social services to farmworker women
• Established and led two coalitions in Illinois to train leaders in the farmworker women community on self-advocacy
• Co-authored a legal guide and curriculum to educate workers on workplace sexual violence; implemented the curriculum at all the worker centers in Chicago and Kankakee, Ill.
• Presented at the National Sexual Assault Conference on community outreach for survivors of workplace sexual violence
• Initiated a partnership with Northern Illinois University, College of Law to teach a farmworker course in spring 2013
Where are they now?
Karla is currently a Staff Attorney at the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights.
Colleen provided holistic, client-centered representation for women and children with mental health disabilities to combat the collateral consequences they face as a result of contact with the criminal justice system.
The number of people with mental illnesses involved in the criminal justice system is at an all-time high. According to current estimates, there are three times as many people with psychiatric disabilities in jail than in hospitals. Instead of receiving mental health care, people with mental illness often get caught up in the criminal justice system where they are at risk of slipping into a cycle of recidivism, continually revolving in and out of jail for petty offenses. The risk of repeat offenses is exacerbated by collateral consequences of contact with the criminal justice system. Public housing, job licenses, parental rights, and various forms public assistance are put in jeopardy at the moment of arrest. A legal advocate makes a drastic difference in ensuring that people with mental illness do not lose the support mechanisms they need to avoid continued involvement in the criminal justice system.
During her Fellowship, Colleen:
- Provided more than 200 clients with full legal representation or legal consultation
- Helped clients secure Medicaid, Social Security, and other public benefits; trade licenses; and alternatives to incarceration, such as mental health treatment programs
- Trained Neighborhood Defender Service (NDS) staff on working with clients experiencing mental health crises, directing clients to emergency resources, and criminal diversion programs for clients with serious mental health diagnoses
After her Fellowship, Colleen joined the Neighborhood Defender Service’s Family Defense Team as a staff attorney, where she defends parents in abuse-and-neglect and termination of parental rights proceedings.
Aimee represented students with disabilities who are required to participate in court diversion programs (court-diverted students) to address their educational needs in order to prevent school exclusion, increase academic achievement, and decrease recidivism.
Students with disabilities are disproportionately involved in the juvenile justice system and are in critical need of representation to obtain the educational services necessary to prevent recidivism. Student suspensions often lead to expulsions and court referrals, so it is particularly alarming that Chicago Public Schools suspended 42 percent of all students with disabilities at least once in 2010, as compared to the national rate of 13 percent. It is also troubling that there were 11,225 school-based arrests in Chicago from 2009-2010 because students with disabilities are more likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system when they are suspended, expelled, or arrested. Intervention is critical at the early juncture when students with disabilities are diverted from court so as to ensure they receive the educational supports they need to remain in school and out of the court system.
During her Fellowship, Aimee has:
- Provided 220 families of students with disabilities and others calling on their behalf with self-advocacy assistance or direct legal representation to prevent expulsions; place students in their appropriate least restrictive environments; evaluate students’ eligibility for special education services; and create appropriate Individualized Education Programs, 504 Plans, and Behavior Intervention Plans
- Shared information with 347 attendees at 16 outreach events on her project and the special education rights of court-diverted students with disabilities
- Trained 312 attorneys, paralegals, probation officers, mental health professionals, disability and educational advocates, community service providers, and teachers at 16 training events focused on the special education rights of students with disabilities involved in school-based discipline incidents
Where are they now?
Now that the Fellowship is complete, Aimee continues to work at Equip for Equality’s Special Education Clinic, ensuring that all students have access to the educational opportunities they need to succeed.
Tiffany worked to tackle the unmet legal needs of veterans who have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other mental health conditions due to military sexual trauma (MST) by creating a national pro bono program to represent those veterans on their disability compensation claims before the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
A large number of military personnel are survivors of sexual assaults committed by other service members. The most commonly diagnosed mental disorder for those who have experienced a sexual assault in the military is PTSD. Tragically, because many of these survivors were fearful of reporting the assaults while they were in service, many veterans who suffer from PTSD or other mental health conditions as a result of a military sexual assault face an exceptionally high hurdle in obtaining disability compensation and adequate treatment from the VA. These survivors can prevail on their VA claims if they secure an effective advocate who is able to take the time to thoroughly review all military medical and personnel records and develop the evidence needed to support their VA claims. Unfortunately, there is currently a severe shortage of expert pro bono representation available.
In the past two years, Tiffany has:
- Established the overarching standard operating procedures for the MST program, which is now a signature program of NVLSP
- Placed 41 cases for survivors of MST with pro bono VA-accredited attorneys
- Created a complete body of training materials on MST and trained approximately 70 pro bono attorneys
- Assisted 6 veterans in obtaining VA disability compensation for a mental disorder due to MST and 1 in obtaining temporary disability retirement from the military
- Assisted 14 veterans in obtaining low-cost private mental health evaluations from university psychology training clinics at 10 different universities
- Given brief services and/or referrals to 207 veterans
Where are they now?
Now that the Fellowship is complete, Tiffany plans to:
- Continue in public interest through work with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a Regulatory Counsel.
- Provide pro bono assistance to underserved populations throughout her legal career
Alexandra advocated for young mothers whose interaction with the criminal justice system threatens their mother-child bonds, addressing the cycle of incarceration, foster care, and violence for young women.
When young mothers enter prison, they are very likely to have already experienced domestic violence, been a part of the foster care system, or witnessed the incarceration of a parent. Additionally, over half of all women who enter prison are mothers, the majority of whom are also the sole caretaker for their child or children. Due to strains on the parent-child relationship during incarceration, as well as a lack of resources, 14,000 children with an incarcerated parent enter foster care yearly. Because of their age, young mothers are uniquely positioned to respond positively to legal and social interventions. Alexandra’s project aims to provide targeted legal services to young mothers to help stabilize young families.
During Alexandra’s Fellowship, Alexandra:
- Developed a system of referral from existing Cabrini Green Legal Aid clients to identify young mothers
- Created case acceptance criteria and begin accepting cases for direct representation
- Created a pamphlet of services the project offers and distribute it to low-income legal service providers, probation departments, diversion programs, and social service organizations
- Created guides for currently incarcerated and recently released young parents to inform them of legal rights and remedies
- Reached out to prison facilities to establish systems of referral