New Powell Fellow to Represent Youths Affected by Trauma

Megan Lisa Watkins

Megan Lisa Watkins is partnering with Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center to provide legal services to low-income students in Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia.

November 24, 2015

The University of Virginia School of Law has selected third-year student Megan Lisa Watkins as the 15th Powell Fellow in Legal Services, an honor that will fund her efforts to help youths avoid the school-to-prison pipeline.

The Powell Fellowship awards $45,000 and benefits to enhance the delivery of legal services to the poor under the sponsorship of a host public interest organization. The award is made for one year with the expectation that it will be renewed for a second year. Powell Fellows are also eligible for the school's Loan Forgiveness Program.

As a Powell Fellow, Watkins will spend the year providing direct legal representation to at-risk, low-income students in the greater-Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia, areas who have been affected by the trauma and struggles that often come along with poverty, and who are at risk of falling into a cycle of being kicked out of school and entering the criminal justice system. Her role involves advocacy and community outreach.

The area in Richmond and Petersburg features a concentration of low-income children in public schools. Because upper- and middle-class students have moved to private schools, all public school students in Petersburg and 98 percent in Richmond receive free or reduced-price school lunches, Watkins said.

"Children who live in poverty are disproportionately exposed to trauma with fewer safety nets and supports." she said. "Virginia refers children to law enforcement at a rate of three times that of other states. Statistically, one in four elementary school students are suspended in Petersburg."

Watkins' fellowship is sponsored by the JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center, a Charlottesville-based organization that provides legal representation for low-income individuals in Central Virginia.

JustChildren's existing intake process will be the primary way families are referred to Watkins, but she will also be working with other community providers during the fellowship to help get the word out.

Watkins said the primary way she will help keep students in school is to make sure each students' educational rights and needs are protected, including the provision of appropriate services for students who have a disability or who have been affected by trauma.

She will represent students at special education Individualized Education Program meetings, disciplinary hearings and negotiate with schools to create a consistent record of information on each student that can be used as a reference moving forward.

"It's not something that's being done consistently at present," Watkins said.

Those efforts may lead to evaluating more students for special needs or other previously undiagnosed issues, Watkins said. Such evaluations are necessary for schools to correctly classify students and provide the student with the appropriate classroom aid.

Watkins, a Baltimore-native who grew up in a single-parent household in a low-income neighborhood, said she understands the types of struggles these children are facing from her own personal experience.

In middle school, she recognized the importance of education and began to advocate for her future. With the support of a few teachers she was accepted to a private high school with a full scholarship. "I got to see how different the two schools were," she said.

Watkins earned her undergraduate degree at Davidson College, a private liberal arts college in North Carolina, where she started volunteering with local high school students at nearby schools in low-income neighborhoods.

Watkins says she's always loved public service and volunteering because she feels most at home when in those communities.

After college she worked for three years with Teach For America, a national teacher corps focused on raising student achievement in public schools.

Wanting to do more for the children who were falling through the cracks is what made her want to go to law school, she said.

"I know my life could have been on the same path of the clients that I'll be trying to help," Watkins said. "It's amazing to get to see the impact of your work and the changes made by doing this kind of work. I just can't imagine doing anything else."

At the Law School, Watkins is a member of the Program in Law and Public Service, is a member of the Public Interest Law Association student organization, is in the Health Law Clinic and was in the Child Advocacy Clinic during her second year. Watkins was also a member of Street Law and the Black Law Students Association student organizations.

She'll be interning with the Federal Public Defender's Office in Charlottesville while taking her spring semester classes. The summer between her second and third year of school, she worked at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Public Defender's office, and she has also previously interned with the JustChildren Program.

"Megan is one of the most dedicated public service students I have worked with at the Law School," said Amanda Yale, director of public service for the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center. "She arrived knowing that she wanted to work with children in some capacity and never wavered in her determination.

"Her drive to help youth in need coupled with her acute mind and ability to use the law to benefit her clients is extremely impressive. I feel lucky to have worked with Megan during her time at UVA Law and I know she will go on to do great things as a Powell Fellow and throughout her career. She is definitely one to keep an eye on."

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