man standing on a ny street.

A voice for kids in crisis

For some students, says Nelson Mar ’98, being suspended from school can be a turning point—for the better.

It’s common for students and their parents to appeal for a lesser penalty. When they reach out to Mar, a senior staff attorney with Bronx Legal Services and one of New York City’s leading experts on education law, often they’re back in the classroom sooner. More importantly, he says, “for once in their lives, someone is actually in their corner.” 

New York City’s public education system are Mar’s daily round. A graduate of the borough’s Bronx High School of Science, he has been with the agency, part of Legal Services NYC, for over 24 years. His clients are low-income families in crisis—their child is threatened with suspension or even expulsion.  Or in other instances, an Individualized Education Plan may not be executed properly or a “504 plan” providing for accommodations for a disabled student isn’t working. 

In disciplinary proceedings, he says, “regardless of the severity of the situation, we always advocate for staying in school. We believe students should not be excluded from their classes for extended periods of time. That leads to academic failure and increased dropout rates, and ultimately increased contact with the criminal justice system; a process many refer to as the schools to prison pipeline.”  

And it’s not just a matter of fairness for the individual student. “This is very much a racial justice issue and a racial equity issue,” Mar says. “Black children are suspended more often than children of other racial backgrounds, and they face more severe penalties for the same infractions than students of other racial backgrounds. And from our review of the data and some of the research we’ve done, students with disabilities face even higher levels of discipline than Black students in general.” 

Mar shares his expertise with others working for fairness in schools and more broadly. For thirteen years, Mar chaired the Education Law Task Force for Legal Services NYC, which brings together community groups, advocates, social services agencies and public-interest lawyers to talk about what’s working and what needs to change in the education of low-income students. He also serves on the New York State Bar Association’s Task Force on Racism, Social Equity and the Law, and co-chairs its Education Committee that recently issued a report about structural racism and its history in the state and recommendation on how to address it.  

Sometimes a pattern will emerge out of the welter of cases that cross his desk. When it became apparent that school administrators were routinely calling 911 when students acted out, sending kids to hospital emergency rooms when no medical emergency existed, Mar sued in federal court to challenge the practice. The affected families won a financial settlement, and the New York City Department of Education changed its policies.  

“If people are aware of this issue, they know that I have been leading the advocacy on how the city can do better with students who have emotional difficulties and how to better serve them,” Mar says.  

A hopeful development, he says, is New York’s move toward “healing-centered schools” that takes into account the ways trauma—exposure to housing and food insecurity or exposure to violence, for example—affects the development of children’s brains, particularly the area that regulates judgment and impulse control. “The beauty of the science,” Mar says, “is that there’s a way to respond to it, one that can actually promote healing.” 

He and his colleagues wrote a major proposal on ways the public schools can accommodate these new understandings; the New York City Department of Education adopted some of its recommendations and made the proposal available to school staff members when schools reopened after the COVID shutdown. They followed up with a citywide training for school staff about trauma and its effect on children. “We thought it would be an uphill climb to talk about trauma,” he says, “but because of COVID everyone now understands trauma. This will have a tremendous impact on outcomes for children down the road.”  

Mar earned the J.D./MSW at UB. “That dual degree program was really helpful in preparing me to do the things I do now,” he says. “Having those two types of lenses is crucial for making change with the affected communities that I work with.”