J.R. v. Palm Beach Cnty. Sch. Bd. (S.D. Fla. 2006). J.R. is a special education student with an emotional disability. During an incident in which he was misbehaving, the school called the resource officer to restrain him. After he was placed in handcuffs in a seclusion room and while he was on the floor, the resource officer pepper sprayed him. We filed a § 1983 excessive force police misconduct case seeking an injunction to improve the pepper spray policy in this school district, which allowed too much discretion in school resource officers. A mediated settlement provided for damages for the student, a change to the pepper spray policy, and training for school staff on the policy and in handling students with emotional and mental health problems. Co-counsel: Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County.

Creating Affirming School Environments

Part of SLC’s work to improve children’s services involves creating affirming school environments for LGBTQ+ youth. Learn more.

Healthy Kids Medical-Legal Partnership

In an effort to reduce the health-harming legal needs of children served by the University of Florida (UF), Southern Legal Counsel is partnering with UF Pediatrics to offer the Healthy Kids MLP to UF’s pediatric patients. Piloted in the Severe Asthma Clinic, the MLP expanded to the Pediatric Endocrinology Division, the Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Division, and the Youth Gender Program. SLC attorneys also take referrals for legal services from doctors and providers in the Sickle Cell Clinics, Diabetes Clinics, and at UF Pediatrics. Southern Legal Counsel staff are on-site during clinic hours, meeting with families and collaborating with doctors and nurses to deliver holistic care to patients. In 2020-21, we assisted over 100 children with educational and other health-harming legal needs through the MLP across 19 counties in North and Central Florida (67% of our MLP pediatrics patients with school issues are students of color). We also train UF pediatric medical providers (nurses, residents, doctors, social workers, medical students, staff) to recognize health harming legal needs to increase referrals and address racial disparities. Read an article about the Healthy Kids Medical-Legal Partnership in UF Health’s The Post.

Read here about other health care advocacy by SLC.

High Quality Education

Citizens for Strong Schools, et al. v. Florida State Bd. of Educ. The citizens of Florida repeatedly voiced their wishes in the Florida Constitution that the State of Florida provide a high quality public school education. On November 18, 2009, SLC filed a declaratory action under the Florida Constitution on behalf of public school students in Florida against state officials to challenge the failure to provide a high quality education.  Plaintiffs were two citizen organizations, a grandmother, parents and students. A four-week televised trial showed tremendous disparities and a school system that was not working for struggling students, students of color, children with disabilities, and students living in poverty. The trial court ruled that while there were problems with failing schools,  it had no authority to order relief. Co-counsel were Tim McLendon, National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, Baker Donelson, and Deb Cupples.

The Florida Supreme Court issued a narrowly divided opinion and upheld a First District Court of Appeal ruling that the issue of adequacy in public education is non-justiciable, meaning that the Court cannot intervene in “political questions,” based on the doctrine of separation of powers. Read the opinion. 262 So. 3d 127 (Fla. 2019). Justices Pariente and Lewis both wrote fiery dissents with all three dissenting justices concurring in each of the dissenting opinions (Pariente, Lewis and Quince).

Justice Pariente in her dissent wrote: “The plurality has abdicated its responsibility to interpret the constitution and eviscerated article XI, section 1 contrary to the clear intent of the voters. And, at the center of this dispute are the students who are at the greatest risk of failing—African-American students, Hispanic students, economically disadvantaged students and school districts, and students attending persistently low-performing schools.”

Additionally, Justice Lewis commented in his dissent: “The instant dispute is not about whether the education system is adequate; rather, we face the threshold question of whether that issue can even be considered and ruled upon by Florida courts. Our school system may or may not be adequate, but we will never know if the Court categorically relegates the question to an unreviewable status. In my view, justiciability is an excuse here to avoid a tough case in these education adequacy challenges, rather than sound legal reasoning based on a valid separation of powers analysis.” Prior published opinions in this case: 232 So.3d 1163 (Fla. 1st DCA 2017); 81 So.3d 465 (Fla. 1st DCA 2011).

Coalition for Advocacy v. Chiles, 680 So. 2d 400 (Fla. 1996). SLC represented intervenors of 38 low-income and minority school children and four prominent civil rights groups - NAACP, Spanish American League Against Discrimination, League of United Latin American Citizens, and the Haitian Refugee Center. The suit was brought by 43 school boards against the Legislature and state education agencies. The central claim was that children have the fundamental right to be "adequately provided with a uniform education" under the state constitution's education clause. As intervenors, we focused on the need for the State to meet the needs of low-income children, who are primarily children of color. We sought trained and experienced teachers, facilities and materials, staff-to-student ratios, challenging and vigorous curricula and access to early childhood programs at their high-poverty schools, at least at the level of schools that are not high poverty. The case was decided by the Florida Supreme Court in favor of the State on separation of powers grounds, but dissents and concurrence pointed the way to framing justiciable legal action.

Juvenile Justice

Bobby M. v. Martinez, Case No. TCA 83-7003 (N.D. Fla., J. Paul), 907 F. Supp. 368 (N.D. Fla. 1995); Jodi Siegel, Reforming Florida's Juvenile Justice System: a Case Example of Bobby M. v. Chiles, 19 Fla. State Univ. L. Rev. 693 (Winter 1992). This statewide class action suit was brought on behalf of approximately 1,000 youth confined to Florida's juvenile training schools, which then were the only facilities for youth in the delinquency system. The suit challenged the conditions and practices of those schools, and alleged unconstitutional conditions of confinement and inappropriate placements. Preliminary injunctions banned hogtying, restricted lock up, barred admission of males under age 13, prohibited admissions of any females, prohibited admissions of runaways, truants and status offenders regardless of age, and closed the facility located in Ocala (McPherson Training School). On the eve of trial, the State settled. Three consent decrees were entered that phased down the two remaining schools to 130 youths each, permanently closed the lock-up units, mandated treatment and educational services, provided access to counsel, and required the development of a new juvenile justice system. The new system included individualized, multi-disciplinary assessments and a broad array of community-based programs providing substance-abuse programs, sex-dysfunction programs, prevention and diversion projects, and gang-prevention projects. SLC led the monitoring and enforcement phase (except for educational issues). The Florida Legislature enacted the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 1990 to implement Bobby M. and appropriated $52.7 million for the new programs for the first year of implementation. The new programs provided over 1,700 new community-based residential beds and services and treatment for over 120,000 youth per year. In connection with this legislative implementation, SLC was retained by the Florida House of Representatives as Special Counsel. Co-counsel: National Prison Project, Youth Law Center & Michael C. Dale.

RMP v. Jones, 419 So. 2d 618 (Fla. 1982). As counsel for amicus Florida Center for Children and Youth, SLC briefed and argued a first impression issue concerning the lock-up and commingling of runaways, truants and ungovernable youth (status offenders) with delinquents charged with or adjudicated on criminal law violations. The Florida Supreme Court declined to reform the system of mixing law violators with status offenders. The Florida Legislature followed by amending the law to prohibit this practice and established new comprehensive programs for these non-criminal youth. Co-counsel: National Juvenile Law Center.

In re Juvenile Rules of Proc., 393 So. 2d 1077 (Fla. 1980). As counsel for Florida Center for Children and Youth, SLC petitioned for a rule change of first impression to the Juvenile Rules of Procedure concerning the placement of delinquents charged as minors in adult jails when juvenile detention facilities were overcrowded or were otherwise believed to be inadequate. The petition was granted by Juvenile Court Rules Committee of The Florida Bar and its Board of Governors, but the Florida Supreme Court denied the proposed rule amendment. The Florida Legislature then amended the statute to restrict minors not charged as adults from commingling with adult jail inmates.