September 19, 2022
For the past six years, attorney Renuka Rege has been a dedicated advocate for Maryland students. Since joining the Public Justice Center as an Education Equity Fellow, she has developed our Education Stability Project’s work to advance racial equity in public education by combatting the overuse of practices like suspension, expulsion, and school-based arrest that disproportionately push Black and brown students and students with disabilities out of school. From representing individual students to leading systemic advocacy to collaborating with community organizers, Renuka has achieved significant victories to improve school discipline policies and practices. She has also advanced our internal race equity work. As she pursues new endeavors beyond the PJC, we wanted to celebrate her contributions by sharing a few ways that Renuka has made an impact.
Renuka’s work at the PJC began by conducting a needs assessment to refine and expand the focus of the Education Stability Project on racial inequity in Maryland’s public schools. Drawing on conversations with students, parents, teachers, child service providers, legal advocates, academic experts, and race equity experts, she developed a plan for the Project to counteract school pushout through representation of individual students, community education, and systemic advocacy.
Renuka formed and led the Maryland Suspension Representation Project, a partnership of five organizations, to coordinate representation of families in school discipline cases. She represented students and their parents in school discipline and related special education matters, including at hearings before local school boards and in briefings before the state board of education, securing outcomes such as preventing, shortening, or reversing suspensions and expulsions, obtaining education services and behavior supports, and preventing juvenile delinquency charges.
Community education has also been a key part of Renuka’s work. She created and conducted know-your-rights presentations and materials on the school discipline process for youth, parents, service providers, and community members. She also spoke on numerous panels and at conferences and gave media interviews to inform advocates and public officials about how school pushout hurts students’ academic success and engagement and how it fuels the school-to-prison pipeline.
In addition to representation and community education, Renuka has been an effective advocate at the local and state levels. She advocated before several school districts, local school boards, and the Maryland State Department and Board of Education regarding policies to reduce school pushout and promote positive approaches to student behavior. In particular, she successfully advocated to reform the Baltimore County Public Schools’ discipline policies to prohibit forced transfers to alternative schools that circumvent the expulsion process. In the Maryland General Assembly, she advocated to support and oppose numerous bills, including leading a successful advocacy effort to pass a bill to implement due process protections and data reporting for students who are removed from school for arrests in the community.
Renuka drafted an amicus brief in Gambrill v. Board of Education of Dorchester County, a case before the Maryland Court of Appeals, arguing that local school boards and teachers should not be subject to negligence suits for disciplinary decisions, particularly decisions to use supportive discipline practices, because discipline is an essential part of education and the option to sue school boards and teachers for those decisions would incentivize an increase in exclusionary discipline.
Throughout her work, Renuka has collaborated closely with partners and in coalitions, including leading various committees and promoting race equity values. She began to implement a community lawyering approach by building relationships with community organizers who are leading the fight to remove police from schools in several counties, working closely in coalition with them, and contributing legal and policy support to the campaigns.
Renuka has also helped advance our internal race equity work. At various points, she participated in the PJC’s Race Equity Team, served on a workgroup that worked with outside facilitators to plan staff discussions and training, and helped draft our race equity vision, mission, and commitments.
In reflecting on her time at the PJC, Renuka shared:
I truly appreciate all the support the PJC has given me to grow into a public interest lawyer and advocate, the flexibility to try to make an impact in an area of law and policy that I am passionate about, and the ways I have felt valued as a PJC staff member. I am grateful for the relationships I have formed with both PJC colleagues and outside partners. I am sad to leave the PJC, but excited to take everything I have learned to a new place.
We are thankful for all the ways Renuka has built a more equitable education system in Maryland and moved the PJC’s mission forward. As lead attorney of the Education Stability Project Monisha Cherayil says,
Renuka has made a truly lasting impact on the PJC during her time here. With her dedication and talent as an attorney on our Education Stability Project, we have represented dozens of clients each year to get back into school and get the educational support they need, empowered hundreds of families with information about their rights in the context of school discipline and school arrest, and achieved meaningful systemic changes to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline at the state and local levels. Her approach to her work embodies the commitment to racial equity at the heart of PJC’s mission. We are sad to see her go but we look forward to all that she will achieve in her next chapter.