Featured Child and Advocacy Fellowship Alumnus Joel Pietrzak ’14: Standing Up for the Rights of Underprivileged Disabled Children in the NYC Public Education System
By Amy Brown
In every issue of FamilyLaw@HofstraLaw, we will be profiling a successful Hofstra Law alumnus. We are proud to launch our series with the below interview with our exemplary alumnus, Joel Pietrzak.
We are proud to profile Joel Pietrzak, an alumnus of Hofstra Law’s Child and Family Advocacy Fellowship, who is a dedicated advocate in the education field for underprivileged students with disabilities. He graduated from Hofstra Law in May 2014 and currently works in The Legal Aid Society’s Civil Practice as a staff attorney in its Education Law Project. I recently had the privilege of interviewing Joel about the interesting journey that he has taken to get to the position that he calls “home”.
When did you first realize that you wanted to work in the education field?
My commitment to child advocacy began after I graduated from NYU (with a degree in drama), when I decided to apply for — and was later accepted into — the NYC Teaching Fellows program. My dad was a teacher for over 30 years, and the importance of education was instilled in me at a young age, so the NYC Teaching Fellows seemed like a good fit.
While a NYC Teaching Fellow, I earned my master’s degree in special education at Brooklyn College at the same time that I was teaching special education at an underserved middle school in Brownsville, Brooklyn. I spent three years teaching in Brownsville, during which time I became involved in a variety of school activities, including becoming the chairperson of the School Leadership Team and an advisor to the first student government in the school’s history. I was also active in the teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers.
During my time as a teacher, I learned a lot about the legal basis for special education and the rights that students and parents have in developing and advocating for an appropriate special education program. Although I had no formal education on the subject at the time, my intuition told me that, in many cases, the students that I was charged with educating were not receiving appropriate support and services as part of their Individualized Education Program (IEP). Accordingly, I played an active role in IEP meetings and re-evaluations, through which I was able to help define appropriate educational programs for my students.
As a Hofstra Law Child and Advocacy Fellow, what issues did you focus on?
Although I knew that I did not want to be a teacher forever, I also knew that my experiences in the public education system would help to determine my next steps — namely, I decided to go to law school. I was honored to be accepted at Hofstra Law as a Child and Family Advocacy Fellow (CAF Fellow). As a CAF Fellow, I focused mainly on education issues. I researched and worked on a model discipline code meant to combat the “school-to-prison pipeline” (SPP) and helped to organize a conference held at Hofstra on the same topic. The SPP, also known as the “schoolhouse-to-jailhouse track”, is the disproportionate tendency of minors and young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds to become incarcerated due to increasingly harsh school and municipal policies.
I also wrote my Law Review note on the “Child Find” provisions of the federal law governing the education of students with disabilities, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Child Find is a key yet often overlooked provision of the IDEA that charges public schools with the obligation to have sufficient procedures by which to “locate, identify and evaluate” all children suspected of having a disability. Through my research, I ascertained that the primary problem was that each state or local educational agency came up with its own procedures for determining whether children were suspected of having a disability, so there was no consistency and no uniform “best practices.” Consequently, many children fall through the cracks and do not receive the services to which they are entitled under the law. This is an issue I hope to work on from a policy angle in the future, because if we are able to identify learning and emotional disabilities in children early on, the chance at remediation is exponentially greater.
What was your first position after graduating from law school?
Following my graduation from law school, I took a turn toward “Big Law” life and started out as an associate at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel (Kramer Levin) in their Securitization practice. In hindsight, I learned a lot and met some great people while at Kramer Levin, but while I was working there, I spent far too many late nights wondering what I was doing there — I felt out of place and I missed my involvement in the educational system, where I felt that I was doing something truly meaningful.
How did you get your career back on track?
With an assist from Franca Sachs, the assistant dean for experiential programs at Hofstra Law, who told me about the position, I decided to apply to the Legal Aid Civil Practice’s Education Law Project. I was fortunate enough to receive an offer from Legal Aid in October 2017, and I started in my new position in November 2017. Finally, I feel at home, representing disadvantaged people and fighting to get kids with disabilities the education they deserve.
What are your duties and responsibilities as a staff attorney in Legal Aid’s Education Law Project?
Specifically, a major part of my job is staffing a first-of-its-kind medical-legal partnership (MLP) between Legal Aid and the Child and Family Institute (CFI) at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s. The MLP was partially funded by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office as one way to combat the SPP. The MLP is an essential resource for parents and children who receive therapy at CFI. All of the children we work with have experienced some sort of trauma, so often there is a particular focus on obtaining therapeutic school placements and services for our clients.
The MLP is especially innovative in that it allows Legal Aid to more effectively communicate with therapists and mental health providers of the children we work with — whose evaluations and recommendations so often make the difference in structuring an appropriate program for their patients, our clients. The clients we see would, by and large, not seek us out or even know about their rights with respect to their child’s education if it weren’t for this new partnership. Along with my amazing team at Legal Aid, I also devise and conduct “Know Your Rights” presentations for parents of children with disabilities. The ultimate goal of all of the work my team does is to help create self-advocates in the community — a “pay it forward” model. We can’t represent all of the over 200,000 kids with disabilities in the New York City public school system, but we can try to reach the greatest number of kids possible by making sure that all of our clients — and those who come to our workshops — understand and feel comfortable asserting their rights.
Would you recommend a career in public interest to Hofstra Law students?
I am especially grateful to Professor Andrew Schepard and Franca Sachs, who have been mentors to me, both when I was attending Hofstra Law and now as an alumnus. Along the circuitous path that has finally led me to Legal Aid, I have realized that each previous step has truly paved the way for the next. Public interest jobs are very competitive — there is no doubt about that — but I encourage anyone who is public interest minded to go for it. There is nothing more gratifying as an attorney than achieving results for people who would not have been able to do it on their own.