Abigail Adkins, an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by McDermott Will & Emery and Darden Restaurants Inc., in September began a two-year fellowship at Southern Legal Counsel to expand student mental health services.

Adkins will improve school safety by advocating for the provision of comprehensive school- and community-based mental health services for at-risk students. Children with behavioral health challenges are often identified as disciplinary problems, and their underlying mental health issues go unaddressed, Adkins said.

“Too many children are perceived as merely ‘bad,’ when a complex set of environmental and biological variables may impact their ability to function at the same levels as their peers,” said Adkins, who earned her law degree at the Florida A&M University College of Law.

Adkins will work to ensure that as schools collect data to assess potential safety risks, at-risk youth will receive appropriate special education and community-based services.

Prior to law school, Adkins worked with children in out-of-home care who had mental health needs and developmental disabilities. Having seen the difference behavioral health services can make, she was inspired to advocate for systemic reforms to make school a safer, more welcoming place for all students.

At Southern Legal Counsel she will represent students in need of comprehensive mental-health and behavioral services. Focusing on youth with school disciplinary or mental-health concerns, such as multiple contacts with the juvenile justice system or involuntary psychiatric examinations, she will work to remove systemic barriers blocking access to educational and health services.

In addition to direct representation, Adkins will engage in a variety of community education and engagement efforts through partnerships with parents, educators, children’s attorneys, and other community stakeholders.