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Externship dispatches: Sarah Best L’21

December 16, 2020

Sarah Best L’21 is a Tennessee native who hopes to work in education law one day.

Last Spring, I had the privilege of working with the Education Law Center (ELC). Through direct legal representation, impact litigation, and policy advocacy, ELC advocates on behalf of the most underserved student populations — children in poverty, children of color, children with disabilities, children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, children experiencing homelessness, English learners, LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming students — in relentless pursuit of its mission to ensure access to a quality public education for all children in Pennsylvania.

I worked primarily with the litigation team for the Glen Mills Schools class action lawsuit over the horrific, systemic abuse and lack of meaningful education suffered by the students. ELC was just entering the discovery phase of litigation, and I supported their work to ensure that their clients’ privacy rights were properly protected by drafting memoranda on the discoverability of social media content and on the propriety of compelling signatures on medical and education release forms.

I also assisted ELC’s work in their fair funding lawsuit (filed on behalf of parents, school districts, and statewide organizations in response to the Pennsylvania legislature’s failure to adequately and equitably fund public education) by evaluating potential witnesses and attending a series of deposition preparation sessions. I got involved in their amicus work by helping moot an attorney for a case involving a student who was bullied because of his race and nonconformance with gender stereotypes. I watched this oral argument before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court alongside the ELC team as one of my final in-person experiences before the pandemic forced upon us a new set of challenges. And as school districts across Pennsylvania opted to halt virtual education, I conducted research for a policy memo challenging the legality of the Department of Education’s guidance that schools, if they discontinued educational services during the pandemic, had no obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

I felt prepared for the research and writing portions of this experience thanks to my Legal Practice Skills instructor, Eleanor Barrett L’05, whose incisive and thorough feedback transformed my approach to the writing process. And I was prepared for the moot thanks to Lecturer in Law Alicia Hickok L’01, who mooted us every single week in our Appellate Advocacy course!

I benefited from every aspect of this externship, but helping to manage ELC’s intake line meant the most to me personally. Every week, I was assigned two calls, during which I spoke primarily with parents or guardians about their schools’ failure to meet the needs of their children. I then relayed the information to my supervising attorney who helped me draft a response that offered legal advice or additional resources. I was familiar with many of the issues because I had worked as a teacher in schools serving primarily underprivileged communities, but back then I lacked the knowledge and tools to advocate effectively for my students. Thanks to this experience in particular, I finally felt empowered to consider actionable solutions to the problems I had witnessed every day during my five years of teaching.