Youth Advocacy Foundation

EdLaw Project

Equitable Access to Quality Education


Project Background

The EdLaw Project has provided education advocacy for Massachusetts' highest-risk youth. Since January 2000, EdLaw Project attorneys have directly advocated for the educational rights of over 1,800 low-income youth in Massachusetts. Prevention and intervention are the best ways to keep children out of the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Our interventions help kids, improve public safety, and save taxpayers millions of dollars.

The Edlaw Project is an initiative between the Youth Advocacy Foundation and the Committee for Public Counsel Services, Children & Family Law and Youth Advocacy Divisions.

Our team offers direct advocacy for students in many difficult situations including:

  • school exclusion;

  • having trouble reintegrating after detention or incarceration;

  • receiving inadequate education while in state custody;

  • or struggling with undetected and underserved special needs.

Advocacy in these areas is not government funded. So, over time, the Edlaw Project has become the main program for the Foundation. We also provide training and support for attorneys throughout the Commonwealth. We show lawyers with youth clients how to better represent children and families. If attorneys identify and address a child's educational need, it leads to better legal and life outcomes. 

Our Impact in 2017:

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EdLaw Project Client Stories


Kenny is a 13 year old student who came to EdLaw’s attention when he was facing expulsion for an incident involved horseplay at school. The incident was not witnessed by any adults, but the student reported it to her father, who, in turn, called the middle school headmaster and demanded Kenny’s removal.

Kenny is a young boy with a diagnosis of ADHD and a Nonverbal Learning Disability. As a child, he suffered lead poisoning. A Manifestation Determination Review (MDR) meeting regarding the incident was conducted to determine if Kenny's actions were a manifestation of his disability, which concluded that they were, specifically his misinterpretation of social cues.

Following the MDR, the school district conducted a full reevaluation of Kenny’s needs to determine whether his current school placement was appropriate. The school district concluded that Kenny needed a placement in a more restrictive setting. Kenny’s mother disagreed with this finding and refused to sign the new IEP, arguing that certain accommodations could be placed in his current program to address any concerns.

The school district filed a complaint at the Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA) and the EdLaw Project represented the student in this action. After a comprehensive hearing, the Hearing Officer sided with Kenny, concluding that he was able to remain in his current placement with accommodations.

Currently, Kenny is an honor roll student and has had no further disciplinary actions.


Sam’s court appointed delinquency attorney called EdLaw because Sam was expelled from school and would soon be without any educational services. The delinquency attorney was unfamiliar with the laws and regulations around school exclusion and special education.

Sam’s family had requested a special education evaluation prior to his expulsion because of concerns about his academic as well as his emotional well-being, and despite clear information from the school district’s own psychologist that Sam should qualify for services, the school district denied the request for special education services. Consequently, at age 15, Sam was expelled, and had no education options available to him.

EdLaw helped the attorney to obtain an independent evaluation for Sam as allowed under federal special education law. Armed with the new evaluation, EdLaw was able to procure much needed special education services for Sam. Sam has started the school year in a new school with appropriate services and, as of this writing, has not had any behavioral incidents.


EdLaw Project Staff

Rosa Cortez

Rhodes Fellow/Staff Counsel

Ms. Cortez started with the EdLaw Project as a Frank H.T. Rhodes Public Interest Fellow in September 2018. Prior to law school, Ms. Cortez was a conservatorship caseworker with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, serving children in the foster care system. During law school, she interned at the Rhode Island Public Defender’s Office, Rhode Island Legal Services, and the Committee for Public Counsel’s Youth Advocacy Division. Ms. Cortez’s role as a Rhodes Fellow with EdLaw consists of representing court-involved and at-risk students in special education and school disciplinary matters. Ms. Cortez earned her J.D. from Cornell Law School and her B.A. from Brown University. 

Elizabeth levitan

skadden fellow/Staff counsel

Ms. Levitan started with the EdLaw Project as a Skadden Fellow in September 2017. Prior to law school Ms. Levitan ran a high school transition program for "at-risk" youth in north Philadelphia. During law school she founded the Penn Law Youth Advocacy Project, which provided mitigation and reentry support to young people being charged in the adult criminal justice system, and interned with the Committee for Public Counsel’s Youth Advocacy and Children and Family Law Divisions. Ms. Levitan's role as a Skadden Fellow with EdLaw consists of providing young people involved in the juvenile delinquency system with post-disposition representation on matters such as school discipline, academic failure, and undetected specials needs. She earned her J.D. from University of Pennsylvania Law School and her B.A. from Haverford College.

Erin Hehn O’Sullivan

Senior Counsel

Ms. O’Sullivan started with the EdLaw Project in April 2017.  Prior to coming to EdLaw, Ms. O’Sullivan was a Staff Attorney at the Disability Law Center where she represented people with disabilities in a variety of matters but focusing on special education.  She also conducted special education trainings, investigations of abuse and neglect of students with disabilities, and monitored community residences for clients of DDS.  Prior to working at the Disability Law Center, Ms. O’Sullivan worked as a Trial Attorney at the Children and Family Law (CAFL) Division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services in Worcester.  While at CAFL, she represented children and parents involved in the juvenile court either through the child welfare system or through Child Requiring Assistance (CRA) Petitions.  She earned her J.D. from Villanova University School of Law and her B.A. from College of the Holy Cross.

Michele Scavongelli

Senior Counsel

Ms. Scavongelli has been with the EdLaw Project since 2012 when she joined the project as an Equal Justice Works Fellow. Michele graduated Northeastern University School of Law. A recipient of a Rappaport Fellowship at the Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate and a recipient of a Hennessy Fellowship at the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee, Michele brings a wide range of experience to the Project. In addition to serving EdLaw, Michele is on the board of Bottom Line, an organization that is dedicated to helping disadvantaged students get into college and on the board of CASA, an organization that recruits, trains and supports volunteers who advocate for abused and neglected children before the Suffolk County.

Marlies Spanjaard

Director of Education Advocacy

Ms. Spanjaard is responsible for supervising staff attorneys and interns, making program-wide policy decisions, and cultivating relationships with other individuals and agencies in an effort to promote the Edlaw Project mission. Prior to serving as Director, Ms. Spanjaard gained valuable experience as a staff attorney on the EdLaw Project during which time she represented students in school disciplinary hearings, special education team meetings, and administrative hearings before the Bureau of Special Education Appeals. Marlies has provided trainings on education related issues throughout the state and before a wide variety of audiences including parents, youth workers, students and attorneys. In 2007, Marlies began teaching at Wheelock College as an adjunct instructor in the college’s Juvenile Justice and Youth Advocacy Concentration. She earned her J.D. and her M.S.W. at Washington University Law School and George Warren Brown School of Social Work in St. Louis, MO.