Two years ago, Farragut High social studies teacher Charles Kuner and former colleague Matthew Katz, a lawyer who taught in the school’s legal careers program, began working on a project that would serve the community as well as educate their students. The end result was the David Cerda Legal Clinic, named after a Farragut graduate who was the state’s first Latino judge and Latino appellate court justice. Students in Kuner’s class help volunteer lawyers with legal research and also learn about public policy-making and government. Associate Editor Maureen Kelleher talked with Kuner about the clinic’s work.
Tell me about the genesis of the legal clinic.
We wanted a project that would be practical and not only benefit the school and its students but the two communities, La Villita [Little Village] and North Lawndale. A lot of students and adults have legal problems or concerns. We decided to have the students take a general survey to see what people in the community felt were serious problems. A lot of the problems, such as lack of police response and illegal guns and gangs, had legal aspects.
So you came up with the idea for a legal clinic to help people address these issues.
That’s right. We thought it would fit in nicely with our U.S. history and law classes. We had students go through a list of agencies and do research and interviews to find out what legal services were already being offered in the city. They made presentations on what they found. We discovered people in both communities were not familiar at all with any of these organizations. They felt it was important to have a legal clinic here in the community.
Some administrators feel that if schools offer legal advice to students they could be sued if the case doesn’t go well.
A lot of other principals would say “No” to this because they could see the ramifications. But our principal, Edward Guerra, felt that this would be good for both communities. We do have a disclaimer that clients sign so the school won’t be sued for malfeasance or misrepresentation.
What legal problems do you typically encounter?
A good many cases deal with immigration. We had lawyers talk to our bilingual division classes about immigration and what students can do if they want to go to college even though their parents’ status may be illegal. But sometimes it may not be legal help people need. Instead, it might be a welfare agency or something of that sort that they need to be referred to.
Tell me a success story.
I had a young lady in my class last year who was a victim of a drive-by shooting. As a result [of her injuries], she drags her legs when she walks. To some extent, her cognitive abilities are also affected. Her mother did not know the process to get her daughter on permanent disability from Social Security. We had a lawyer who specialized in physical disability cases. The girl went in, met the lawyer, and when I saw her later she had a great big smile on her face. The lawyer explained the process her mother would have to go through to get disability. Now, rather than her mother having to worry about coping economically, she’ll be able to get some money for her.
What about the law class?
Last year, I had some [law students] who were finishing out their third year. I used them as paralegals in the office and some of them taught the class, which I supervised. That helped a great deal because I’m not a lawyer myself. We did mock trials in the classroom, so I brought some lawyers in to work with them on how to prepare. Some of my students went out and did court observations and wrote legal briefs. Some of them may want to become paralegals or lawyers themselves, but that’s not necessarily the goal. As citizens, understanding how the law works, how the court system works, how the government works and so on, is important for them.