Staying on track: Law school student aims to help kids escape the school-to-prison pipeline

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Being a lawyer was never an aspiration for Emily Garcia. Rather, she had always wanted to follow in the footsteps of her mother, an elementary school teacher.

“I always enjoyed helping her in her classroom,” Garcia says. “When I became a teacher myself, I really enjoyed working with students who came from difficult backgrounds. I feel like school is supposed to be a safe place for those kids and I loved getting to see those students grow into themselves.”

But fate had other plans in store.

Following her career as a teacher, Garcia became an advocate at Disability Rights South Dakota (formerly South Dakota Advocacy Services), the state’s Protection and Advocacy organization.

“I fell in love with the work and I gained great satisfaction at helping children with disabilities who had suffered abuse, neglect or rights violations,” she says.

“My supervising attorney was also a mother and a former teacher. She gave me the confidence to believe opportunities were still out there for me and that I had the ability to succeed as an attorney.

“So, when my husband got a job opportunity in Detroit, I jumped at the opportunity to apply to law school—since then, I’ve never looked back!”

Garcia says she found her “home” at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, where she is heading towards graduation.

“From the moment I applied, I’ve felt welcome,” she says. “My professors, my classmates, and the UDM staff make this a community for me. This is an environment where I feel comfortable learning and growing.”

Garcia interned last year at the Michigan Children’s Law Center, an organization she says is doing the real work of helping children who need legal representation the most.

“I was able to work with students in educational settings and in the court setting,” she says. “I think this opportunity helped me have a better understanding of the school-to-prison pipeline here in Michigan.

“I hope to someday work with juveniles under similar circumstances, so interning at the Center better prepared me for that goal.”

She spent last summer clerking at the Family Law Project in Ypsilanti, that works with individuals (mostly women) in domestic violence situations, providing assistance with such issues as divorce, child custody orders, and protection orders.

“Statistics show that leaving an abusive partner is the most dangerous time for a woman,” Garcia says. “It was so rewarding for me to get to help these women and children reach safety.”

Last fall, Garcia—whose dream is to work in criminal law with juveniles, especially the school-to-prison pipeline—externed at the Federal Defender Office in Detroit, where she researched criminal procedure issues for attorneys.

“Criminal law is my favorite area of the law, so I found this work fascinating,” she says. “With criminal defendants, society has a tendency to judge their alleged actions even before a person has been found guilty.

“However, this experience helped me learn that everyone has a story and that things may not always be as bad they seem.”

Garcia is enjoying her current participation in the law school’s Criminal Trial Clinic, working with clients facing misdemeanor charges,” she says.

“I feel this is my chance to learn the realities of becoming a lawyer and every day I learn something new about the law,” she says.

She has spent the last two years on Law Review, with two articles published through the online and print publications.

“Both focused on children’s rights issues in school,” she says. “The research involved gave me the chance to take a deep dive into educational issues, a passion of mine.”

Garcia also is involved in the American Constitution Society at Detroit Mercy Law.

“Coming from South Dakota, many of the politically-leaning organizations were largely conservative—it was refreshing to be able to join a group of like-minded law students,” she says. “I’ve been a member of the e-board since 1L year and I always appreciate participating in ACS’s intelligent and thoughtful presentations.”

She enjoys her membership in the Women’s Law Caucus.

“If you want to meet a bunch of women who are going to change the world, you need to attend a WLC meeting! I’ve not been as involved with WLC as I would like, but this group is always doing something to better the community,” she says.

Garcia, who spent the majority of her adult life in South Dakota before moving to the Great Lakes State, now lives in Riverview in Wayne County, with her husband Gabe, and sons Jovi, 9, and Kenny, 5, and a Labrador Retriever named Augie, “I’m a former foster parent,” Garcia says. “Two of our foster children never left and we were lucky enough to adopt them.

“Being a foster parent is one of the greatest joys and sorrows of my life,” she adds. “I absolutely loved the opportunity to take care of a child who, at that moment in his or her life, had no one else to take care of them. Like my students, I loved getting to watch these children grow up. This experience was also very tragic. I believe children belong with their families and it’s heartbreaking when that’s not a possibility.

“Unfortunately, the same circumstances that lead children into foster care are the ones that lead them into the criminal justice system. I believe criminal deterrence starts by working with children when they are young. And, I’ve been fortunate enough to see the important role that attorneys plan in helping at-risk children.”

Moving from the prairie of South Dakota to the Detroit-metro area was quite a difference, she says.

“However, I’ve felt welcome since the day we arrived. I’ve met some of my best friends in the short time I’ve been here and that’s made all the difference in making Michigan my home.”

After purchasing a camper, the family has enjoyed such beauty spots as Lake Charlevoix, Niagara Falls, and Put-in-Bay in Ohio.

“It’s fun to get our family out and learning about our surroundings,” Garcia says. “I was so surprised how close we are to so many things!”

Halfway through her 1L year, Garcia started working out at Mighty Warrior Crossfit gym.

“Crossfit has been my saving grace both mentally and physically—everyone there is so encouraging and I’ve met some good friends through the gym,” she says. “It’s my chance to let the stressors of my life go while having fun.”

Garcia wants to inspire other women to not sell themselves short.

“I spent a lot of years believing I would only go so far in life,” she says. “The success I’ve had in law school comes down to two things – hard work and a belief in myself.

“If someone hadn’t given me permission to believe in myself, I don’t think I’d be where I am today. Women are capable of great things so long as we maintain faith in ourselves.”


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