The school-to-prison pipeline – a disturbing national trend in which children, especially those who are minorities or have disabilities, are pushed out of the classroom and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems – has made national headlines in recent years, with much discussion on how to address this problem. For attorney Becky Rosenfeld, it meant a career change – from representing defendants in criminal matters to going back to the start: school.
Becky graduated from Brown University and then attended New York University School of Law. After law school, she worked for nine years as a public defender with the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Defense Practice in Manhattan. She then got a job at Appellate Advocates working on drug resentencing matters. Next, Becky worked in legal academia for a decade, teaching at NYU School of Law and serving as Externship Director at Cardozo School of Law.
Years of working in criminal defense led Becky to develop an interest in special education law. “As a public defender, I saw many clients who had been ill served by the educational system,” said Becky. “They were suspended, expelled, wrongly diagnosed, or not given proper services, and they ended up getting sucked into the school-to-prison pipeline and getting arrested. Once they were adult defendants, people no longer had any sympathy for them. I thought: where did this start? I wanted to go back to schools and work on that end of the pipeline.”
After working in New York for 20 years, Becky took the New Jersey bar exam. She soon connected with experienced New Jersey special education attorney David Giles and joined his practice. She and David – the firm’s two attorneys – handle all aspects of special education law, from Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) to out-of-district placements to independent evaluations.
Because special education law was a new field for Becky, she made efforts to connect with other attorneys in the state and seek out trainings on relevant topics. After attending two VLJ trainings on education law in 2017, Becky began receiving emails with available pro bono cases through VLJ’s Children’s Representation Program, and quickly took some on.
“There are so many kids in this state who are treated as dispensable and not important in the educational system,” said Becky. “Many of those kids have profound needs, and often don’t have representation, so it’s an important part of my practice to be able to represent kids from lower income communities. I appreciate the opportunity to take cases through VLJ.”
Becky recalls one case in one of the poorest districts in the state. The student, a 17-year-old with autism, was in a special education classroom in a public school, but his needs were not being met. He was failing to progress academically and misbehaving constantly. The school was not equipped to handle his behavior, and would call the student’s mother – who ultimately had to quit her job – to come watch him in school all day. Becky negotiated on the student’s behalf and was finally able to get him into an out-of-district placement in a private school for students with autism, where he would get appropriate academic and behavioral support.
“It’s hard to believe that Becky has only been practicing special education law for a year and a half, because she is so substantively experienced and has taken on an incredible amount of pro bono cases in that period of time,” said VLJ Staff Attorney Jessica Limbacher. “She has quickly become one of our most enthusiastic and reliable volunteers.”
In addition to her work with VLJ, Becky also volunteers, along with her 13-year-old daughter, tutoring children who are Haitian refugees. Because many of them are just learning English, Becky and her daughter help them with their homework.
“I think education is a way to access all the good things in life – whether it’s a secure family, secure income, or secure place to live,” said Becky. “If you are shut out of getting a decent education because you happen to have a disability, then your human rights are violated, and your ability to live a decent life is diminished. There are way too many kids, especially minority and low-income kids, who are not treated like they’re important. So they need a lawyer; they need someone to fight for them.”