First row, left to right: Students Lauren Paulk, Jean Stevens, Maggie Palmer, Kat Hutchinson. Second row, left to right: Filaree Moore, Melinda Cooperman, Amanda Jack, Becca Olson. Back row: Adam Shoop, Amy Robinson-Oost, Victoria Roytenberg, Milo Primeaux, Molly Catchen

A kid horses around at school. A child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder has an outburst in class. Someone brings a laser pointer into homeroom.

There was a time when these acts led to detention or a trip to the principal's office. Instead, suspensions — as a means of ongoing discipline — have become shortcuts for New York City public schools that are under-resourced, overcrowded, and attended by low-income students of color, according to the National Economic & Social Rights Initiative.

Studies show that repeated suspensions increase the likelihood that students will fall behind, be held back a grade, or drop out. Suspended children may find it easier to get into trouble, and that, studies find, can eventually lead to incarceration. It's known as the school-to-prison pipeline, and it begins when education takes a backseat to no-tolerance discipline practices and policing policies in schools.

When kids are suspended, getting them back to the classroom without legal representation can be as difficult as emerging from the criminal justice system without a lawyer.

"It's so eerie how much [school suspension hearings] mirror prison disciplinary hearings," says amanda Jack ('11). "It's the same process and the same low threshold" for the school to prove why a student should be suspended.

Jack, who will be headed to a job with Brooklyn Defender Services in the fall, has represented more than 30 clients — all students in public schools — as part of the Suspension Representation Project (SRP), a collective of law students from schools that include Cardozo, Brooklyn Law, Columbia, Fordham, and Pace, advocating on behalf of public school kids and their parents. If a suspension ruling stands, SRP advocates try to appeal.

"While most of my clients have been in 7th or 8th grade, I have had clients as young as 5 years old," says Jack. They can also be as old as 17. Most of her clients have also been male students of color.

Jack was instrumental in bringing SRP to CUNY two years ago, after she and her CUNY classmate Patrick Foster ('11) attended a talk on how schools were increasingly relying on suspensions, even if a student's behavior didn't merit such a severe disciplinary measure.

African-American students are disproportionately affected by school suspensions. although they make up 33 percent of the student body in the state, they have made up more than half the suspensions over the past decade, says the New York Civil Liberties Union. Students with disabilities are four times as likely to be suspended as students without special needs. "we should figure out how to represent these students," Jack recalls saying to Foster.

She discovered a way through SRP, a project founded by New York University Law students in 2007. Jack coordinated SRP in its first year at CUNY, but was helped by other students, including Foster and third-year students Eric Kushman and Paula Segal. In the first year, more than 30 CUNY students took part in training, gaining insight into legal skills, from interviewing clients to conducting direct and cross-examinations and delivering closing arguments. After training, students shadow an experienced student advocate on a case, until they learn enough to become primary representatives at suspension hearings.

Today, about 60 CUNY students have trained to be SRP advocates, with about 25 actively taking cases, almost double the number of the year before, according to Kat hutchison ('12), who got involved in SRP in her first year.

"Every time I take a case and walk into the hearing office, I see a dozen students waiting for their hearing without an advocate," says Hutchison, a codirector of SRP at CUNY law. "You are there to represent just the one [student], but it feels good to go and at least try to fill that void a little bit."

Even before coming to CUNY Law, Hutchison had an interest in students' rights to an education, having worked with at-risk high school students. "SRP was the greatest thing that could have happened to me in my first semester here," she says.

CUNY Law SRP codirector and second-year law student Molly Catchen had worked in the Bronx at the Legal Aid Society in its juvenile rights practice prior to law school; SRP helped her continue working on education issues and school suspensions.

Together, she and Hutchison coordinate calls that come in on the help line, talk parents through the process of what happens at a hearing, and then assign advocates. They also coordinate advisor office hours and training, like a recent cross-examination session with Professor Babe Howell, who teaches Criminal Law and Criminal Trial Advocacy.

Fielding calls from parents every week, Catchen hears a lot of parental frustrations with schools' aggressive reactions to incidents. She once represented a student suspended for having a laser pointer at school.

"I feel the school overreacted to the situation. A lot of things that we see students being suspended for are really just 'kids being kids,'" says Catchen.

But this is New York City, not Long Island where Catchen grew up; it's not Hutchison's home state of Montana; and it's not rural Pennsylvania where Amanda Jack went to "an almost all-white school in the sticks, where this kind of stuff would barely get you detention," says Jack.

At the end of the day, CUNY Law SRP advocates help their clients and continue to hone their advocacy skills.

"It's a great way for law students to step outside the classroom and connect what they are learning to real life," Catchen says. "In the midst of the stresses of law school, it reminds many of us why we wanted to [come here] to begin with."