Vanessa Walsh, a 2L, came to the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law after a career in the financial industry where she planned and managed the operating budget for the customer service division of a national credit card company. After the death of her parents and a failed attempt at early retirement, she was determined to follow through on her long-standing dream of attending law school. As a student, she discovered a passion for the College’s clinical programs, particularly as she contributed to the Public Policy Clinic’s report, From Fingerpaint to Fingerprints: the School-to-Prison Pipleline in Utah, which used U.S. Department of Education data to examine school discipline rates in Utah.
In the interview below, Walsh discusses the opportunities her clinical experiences have afforded her to combine her interests in research, public policy and advocacy. She also reveals how the Public Policy Clinic, in particular, helped her to decide on her future career direction of working on behalf of those “who otherwise would not have a voice.” Finally, she describes the process that led to her being invited to present her research at an upcoming symposium at the Sandra Day O’Connor Law School at ASU.
Q: How did you first become involved in the Public Policy Clinic, and what initially sparked your interest in this area?
Over the summer I accepted a position to be Professor Emily Chiang’s research assistant. The position was to interpret statistical data from the Civil Rights Data Collection project, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, and write the first section of the report her clinic had been working on. I wasn’t familiar with the project or the clinic, and neither were the reason I was interested in the RA position. I was interested because it was statistical in nature and I have experience in interpreting data and pulling out the story the data tells. I received 90 pages of statistics and started on my way. As I began writing for the report I was troubled by what the data revealed. I reflected on my son’s experiences in school and how easily some of them could have gone in a different direction. When I finished writing, I knew I couldn’t just forget about it. I didn’t know what the clinic did or what taking it might be like, but I had a desire to see the report through so I dropped a class from my schedule and enrolled in the clinic.
Q: Describe a few of things you have done through and for the clinic.
I’ve had a lot of positive experiences in the clinic. I’ve had two op-eds published, one in the Deseret News and one in the St. George Spectrum. I’ve met with legislators and the attorney general to discuss the issue and attempt to find a champion for it. I’ve attended several community group meetings. I have co-facilitated a Know Your Rights Clinic for high school students. Each has been meaningful in a different way. There are many different perspectives and voices for any problem and understanding each is critical to moving policy.
Q: How do you think your work with the clinic has made a difference in Utah?
The work the clinic has done has brought awareness to the School to Prison Pipeline (STPP) in Utah. At least six legislators have been made personally aware, as has the AG. Both the Deseret News and The Salt Lake Tribune did stories as a direct result of the report. Fox 13 also did a story on the issue. This has resulted in more of the public being aware of the phenomenon, even if they don’t agree with it or the report’s proposed solutions.
As a result of my op-ed in the Spectrum, several like-minded people contacted me who wanted to share what they are doing to address the disproportionality and to network to help create more solutions.
Q: How has your involvement with the clinic affected your future career plans?
When I came to law school I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was done. I knew I would be an advocate for others, but didn’t know in what capacity. I’ve had several classes, including this clinic, that have solidified by decision to advocate for others who otherwise would not have a voice. This clinic has given my perspective on the magnitude of social ills in our society and perspective on the commitment needed to address them.
Q: Would you encourage other students to get involved with the Public Policy Clinic (or other College of Law clinics)? If so, why?
I believe that any clinical experience is a valuable one. It’s a chance to use your skills in a practical way. I believe it’s one of the few ways in law school to take the concepts and theories of the classroom and translate them into action. Performing in the real world can be very different than performing in a classroom and I place a higher priority on the former.
I believe that a clinical placement provides insight in what you may or may not want to do after law school. In addition to the public policy clinic, I participated in a civil clinic last summer, interning [with the] in-house counsel for a locally based restaurant franchise. That also was a positive experience for me. The work was challenging and the supervising attorney was an excellent mentor. As much as I loved the experience, it helped me realize that I truly was ready to walk away from corporate America in the sense that I need to make a difference for people.
Q: The Public Policy Clinic’s research has produced dramatic results. What impression has it made on you personally?
My personal life has always reflected a commitment to the liberties and rights of all people. I believe that everyone, regardless of disability, color, sexual orientation, or economic status deserves respect and is entitled to all the protections afforded by our system of justice. I think that is part of the reason why this clinic and this cause have become so meaningful to me. It’s an outlet to advocate for those who aren’t getting the treatment and access to the rights they deserve.
One of the most troublesome issues for me is the rate at which elementary school kids are suspended and expelled. Kids under 10 shouldn’t be expelled or suspended for anything short of severe behavioral issues. People frequently share their stories with me about a silly thing their elementary school child did that resulted in suspension. I have to believe that there is a better approach.
I’ve also become particularly passionate about zero tolerance policies in schools. It’s a failed approach. Districts apply these policies to a broad array of actions, including catch-all categories such as “insubordination” and “disrespect”. The line is so fuzzy and there is no consistency in how they are applied, other than students and color and students with disabilities are impacted more severely. Prior to this clinic, I assumed these policies were effective and evenly administered. Now that I’m aware this is not true, I have to keep working to eliminate them. This will be a challenge in the face of the Utah legislature actively working to create new ones for bullying during this session.
As a result of this clinic, I’ve started a directed research project to examine the STPP as it specifically impacts American Indians in Utah. This group feels the greatest impact of disciplinary practices in our state. Utah has 6 recognized tribes over 12 reservations and the rates at which these students are referred to law enforcement or arrested at school are truly alarming.
Q: And finally, you recently received the news that you will be presenting your research on the School to Prison Pipeline as it relates to the Native American Population at a symposium in Arizona.
I just received confirmation from the Sandra Day O’Connor Law School at ASU that they would like me to present my research at their School To Prison Pipeline in Indian Country symposium in March. In addition to the clinic, I also took Federal Indian Law last semester. Near the end of the semester I began looking into STPP specifically as it related to the unique vulnerabilities of American Indians in Utah. I was able to combine both interests into a directed research project focusing on the impact to tribes in Utah, specifically the rate of which this group is referred to law enforcement, expelled and arrested at school. The research they want me to present is a direct result of my directed research project.