Legal Aid lawyer Matthew Trail thought a Lee County public school needed systemic change.
The school, designed for children with behavioral problems, was failing the students by not providing mental health and proper academic support as mandated by law, said Trail, an attorney with the Florida Equal Justice Center in Fort Myers whose work is funded by a Florida Bar Foundation Children’s Legal Services grant.
“I know it’s been a problem for a couple of years,” Trail said. “But I didn’t quite know how to tackle it.”
Trail credits his fellowship with the Foundation’s Florida Legal Aid Leadership Development Institute with helping him structure a working plan to create change.
The year-long institute, which concluded May 19, brought together 13 up-and-coming legal aid attorney fellows and 13 more-experienced legal aid attorney mentors to strategize on projects the fellows created to solve problems identified in their communities. Other projects included developing a policy to minimize academic disruptions among foster youth and creating a pro se clinic in Polk County. The Florida Bar Foundation funded the establishment of the institute by the Center for Legal Aid Education in 2009.
“The institute has been valuable for me to meet with other attorneys to discuss legal strategy,” said Trail, who added that the school district has now, after extensive legal advocacy, hired a behavioral expert to work at the school. “I’ve been able to do some good work and get some changes that I don’t think I would have been able to do without the institute experience.”
Institute fellow Martha Pardo, an attorney with Florida Rural Legal Services in West Palm Beach, worked on a project to help ensure that a local public housing authority complied with federal and state regulations when terminating residents from housing programs.
Pardo said learning how to manage large projects and getting other stakeholders involved was the key to the project’s
“Housing recipients’ rights were being ignored during the termination process, which is a federally-protected right,” Pardo said. “Through tireless advocacy efforts and applying the tools learned at the Florida Legal Aid Leadership Development Institute, the public housing authority changed the way it was implementing the rules. The changes were slow and not without a fight, but they happened.”