Spotlight on 2014 Legal Fellow Whitney Knox

Whitney.headshotSpotlight on 2014 Legal Fellow Whitney Knox

WHITNEY KNOX, Seattle University School of Law ’13, was recently named the Urban Youth Justice/RITA Project Legal Fellow for the Racial Impact Transparency & Accountability Project (RITA Project) of the Urban Youth Justice Initiative. The fellowship allows rising 3L and post-graduate students the opportunity to conduct substantive legal research in the area of youth justice and civil rights and shared authorship of a subsequent report published to the community stakeholders, including policymakers and legal advocates.

The RITA Project conducts rigorous detailed research and analysis of public institutional policies and practices to identify patterns of disparate racial/ethnic impact and identify key systemic points that produce disparate outcomes for youth and young adults of color.  The research goal is that the transparency and awareness from exposing systemic disparate impact will promote accountability for multi-level systemic change by identifying unique & distinct advocacy opportunities at different systemic stages and/or youth contact points. Upon completion, all reports generated from the UYJ/RITA Project Fellowship are made available online at:

As the Winter/Spring 2014 Law Fellow, Knox focused her research and analysis on the racial impact of fare enforcement in public transportation, including assessing the risk for racial disproportionality through application of the current fare enforcement rules, regulations, policies and practices.

“Whitney was given the purpose of the research project with discretion to articulate the means and parameters of her work, specifically to encourage her own vision, and Whitney took that discretion and ran with it. Whitney has demonstrated amazing leadership and self-initiative that laid a significant foundation and made a stellar contribution to our racial justice work that other RITA research associates will benefit from and collaboratively build upon,” said Ernest Saadiq Morris, director of Urban Youth Justice.

After completing her Fellowship, Knox is moving on to a staff attorney position with the Georgia Legal Services Program providing legal services to underrepresented populations in SW Georgia.

We talked to Whitney about her background and her fellowship experience with UYJ’s RITA Project:

Why did you pursue the legal Fellow opportunity with the UYJ/RITA Project?

I pursued the fellowship with the RITA project because of my interest in helping to uncover inequity issues in the Seattle and King County area. As a native Seattleite, the systemic issues that the UYJ and RITA projects address are of great concern to me and in some cases are issues that have directly impacted my life or the lives of those close to me.

How was your experience as the UYJ/RITA Project Legal Fellow?

I appreciate the time that I spent working as a UYJ/RITA Fellow. I was given the opportunity to research pertinent issues that were interesting and important to me. As a post-graduate Fellow, my work allowed me to put into practice skills that I learned and developed throughout law school. While I was given clear parameters for my research, I was also afforded broad discretion to put together a research plan that worked for me. Furthermore, the legal issues that I researched, although specific to Washington and 9th Circuit jurisprudence, are certainly not unique to this jurisdiction. My research set a firm foundation for me to build on as I continue to work in public interest lawyering throughout the United States. Working with UYJ was a great culmination to my formal education and start to my legal career.

Do you have any advice to student who are pursuing public interest legal careers?

My advice is to take advantage of experiential learning opportunities as much as possible. It was my experience that the courses I thought to be useful for the type of advocacy I wanted to do were offered infrequently and were difficult to get into when they were offered. As a result, through Seattle University’s Externship Program, I opted to spend a heavy majority of my third year in the field, working with attorneys and clients on real legal issues. This practice and exposure to the law and legal issues faced by target populations helped me to narrow my legal interests as well as provided a forum where I could practice and further develop new lawyering skills. I feel that It was these experiences that made me a competitive job applicant and has allowed me to hit the ground running as I begin my career in public interest lawyering.


The False Promise of Color-Blind & Disability-Free Education Reform

Published on Dignity In Schools (

The False Promise of Color-Blind & Disability-Free Education Reform
By Ernest Saadiq Morris, Urban Youth Justice Initiative

The public debate over education reform reached a crescendo in 2010. This debate was dominated by a media-celebrated corporate education-reformer class consisting predominately of white male alumni of privileged secondary schools and universities. Their brand of education reform is focused on high stakes, standardized tests and the promotion of private charter schools. After all, their background of cultural and educational experiences is most favored by the standardized tests upon which these same privileged academic institutions placed a high premium. It is what they know, but it is the wrong prescription for those urban youth of color most at risk of harm from failed public education experiments.

It is well-documented that there is an academic achievement gap for Black males (and other youth of color) as evidenced by lower standardized test scores and graduation rates. Factors such as the proliferation of zero tolerance discipline policies, high stakes standardized testing, disproportionate special education placement, and unequal school funding have discriminatory impacts upon urban youth of color and youth with disabilities and perpetuate educational inequities.

Furthermore, in our nation’s largest urban school districts poverty tracks race. Yet in How to Fix our Schools: A Manifesto, the celebrities of urban corporate education reform, including Michelle Rhee(D.C.), Joel Klein(New York City) and Paul Vallas(New Orleans), loftily declared:

the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income — it is the quality of their teacher.

Then they set forth how standardized testing and the proliferation of charters are the magic cure-all to improve student and teacher performance, as well as the education system overall.

The fact that sixteen urban school district chiefs refused to address poverty, race, or disability inequities as integral to their education reform manifesto is a heinous omission.

As a result of this blind-eye approach, many youth of color won’t have access to a reform agenda concentrated in charter schools. Worse, the proliferation of charters undermines their right to equal educational opportunity by taking from limited public funds while serving a smaller, less diverse student population than truly public schools. This issue arose recently when the Los Angeles Unified School District was literally forced to give local charter schools a larger cut of its special education budget because they would lose even more funds if charter schools carried out their threat to contract out special education services for which they currently pay the District. As a result of this compromise deal, the District’s traditional public schools will receive less money while continuing to serve more special education students. Indeed, the Los Angeles Times noted that the Unified District’s numbers show about 12% of students district-wide are classified as special needs, yet charter schools only offer special education services to about 6% of their students.

The chronic underserving, or outright exclusion, of special needs youth by charters claiming they are not equipped to handle their needs is a persistent national problem. In October 2010, the special education inequities were so dire in New Orleans that the Southern Poverty Law Center and other advocacy groups filed a lawsuit contending that due to widespread discrimination students with special needs were denied an appropriate education by the majority-charter school New Orleans Recovery School District either denying their enrollment due to their disability or forcing them to attend schools ill-equipped to accommodate their disabilities.

In an ongoing Philadelphia area lawsuit, Blunt et al v. Lower Merion School District, parents of African-American students say they were systematically denied an education equal of their Caucasian classmates due to disproportionate special education placement and lower level curriculum tracking of Black students.

Likewise, high stakes standardized testing has a disproportionately negative effect on Black and Latino students, as well as special needs youth. In 2010, the Advancement Project’s report Test, Punish, and Push Out: How Zero Tolerance and High-Stakes Testing Funnel Youth into the School to Prison Pipeline examined how high stakes standardized testing works with zero tolerance discipline policies to pushout youth of color, especially those from a low income background:

[T]oo many children continue to be labeled academic failures even though they are making progress. These students are shamed by their peers, their teachers, and their communities because of the impact, their test results can have on school assessment.

Additionally, the results from standardized tests are often used to retain students in grade. Yet grade retention has been shown to be the single largest predictor of student dropout. Unless accompanied by targeted and intensive supports and interventions, student retention fails to produce academic gains for the retained students and makes it more likely that the students will experience future behavioral problems.

High stakes testing does not address or alleviate academic achievement disparity rather it stigmatizes it and eventually leads to high pushout/dropout rates. Thereby high stakes testing perpetuates the achievement gap stigma of youth of color and exacerbates their educational disenfranchisement, instead of alleviating it through academic interventions and supports. Once driven to dropout these youth of color and youth with disabilities officially became part of a growing invisible class.

Color-blind and disability-free public education reform is a dangerously exclusionary vision of public education in the image of the elitist academic and cultural backgrounds of the corporate education-reformer class. Equal educational opportunity is a fundamental right of all youth, and its systematic denial is no less than a crime–especially given the historical educational inequities of youth of color and youth with disabilities. Attrition by pushout or dropout of our most at risk youth is merely continuation of the unacceptable status quo that can not justify the redirecting of limited public funds to private hands nor the undermining of every student’s sacred right to equal educational opportunity. It is an illusion of progress and false promise of real reform. Good intentions are not an excuse.