Clinic Student Profile: Sherika Shnider, Youth Education and Justice LTP

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3L Sherika Shnider sees herself in her clients. A stand-out in the Youth, Education and Justice LTP for three semesters, she advocates for students facing school discipline and for “juvenile lifers” (clients sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed before they were adults) in the parole process. Her first client was a student who was being pushed to transfer out of his magnet public high school—not because of his in-school behavior, but because the school learned that he had a pending criminal case. It became clear that the school was dead-set on kicking him out for legally impermissible reasons, and Shnider challenged the school and the Baltimore City Public School System against their attempt to exclude him unlawfully.

Shnider was shocked at the lack of care that the school officials showed toward her client. “The people that you expect to be advocating for kids in these schools- your principals, your social workers—they’re not always advocating for kids,” says Shnider. On the day before Thanksgiving, the client’s mother reached out to inform her that a conference with school officials was scheduled for the following Monday. Despite hosting her family’s Thanksgiving dinner and scrambling to prepare for the conference, it was all worth it when her advocacy led to her client being able to return to school.

Since this first experience, Shnider has seen other clients trapped in a disciplinary system “that’s trying very systematically to push kids out of schools when they don’t fit the mold of their ideal student.” The LTP’s juvenile lifer work brought the experience full-circle for Shnider, where she has seen the long-term effects of not meeting the needs of our most vulnerable children. As Shnider states, “you end up with someone who is 17 years old facing life in prison.”

Shnider knows that these client stories could have been her own. Adopted two weeks shy of her third birthday by a wonderful, loving family that gave her every opportunity—stability, a private school education, a supportive home environment—Shnider always thought about what her life would have been like “had someone not stepped in and made that change for me.” But a chance encounter with her biological sister while in college cemented for her how close she had come to a truly different life: instead of being immersed in college life, her 20-year-old sister who shared so many of her physical features was a mother to three young children, working hard to make ends meet.

All of the “what-ifs” consumed her thoughts. If social services had not stepped in to remove her from her biological mother. If she had been placed with a relative, like her older half-siblings. If her parents had not seen her and made the immediate decision to foster and then adopt her into their home, despite not being married and having no biological children of their own. If her parents had not advocated for her, giving her agency of her own life and decisions. Ultimately, these “what-ifs” laid the foundation for her commitment to child advocacy.

Two years after college graduation, Shnider started at KaBOOM!, a national non-profit where she worked with grassroots organizers across the country to ensure that every child had access to safe places to play. After the uprising following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, Shnider and her Director developed a program called Play More B’More. This program focused on an amazing group of “opportunity youth” interns who were struggling to connect to opportunities while impacted by persistent poverty. This program not only hired youth and helped them realize their own potential, but also expanded the organization’s crisis response to include natural and human-made disasters. Shnider applied to law school because she knew she was ready to challenge the underlying systems that were holding these children back, and she was thrilled to be back in Baltimore to do it. She knows that “if kids are given access to the same opportunities that so many other people are given access to, they will thrive.”

Shnider’s supervising clinic professor Michael Pinard says she is the “ultimate lawyer for our most vulnerable children.” He has been impressed from day one with her “deep insights into the ways in which institutions, such as our schools and law enforcement, work together to exclude, hyper-criminalize, and isolate poor youth of color in cities such as Baltimore. She brings unmatched passion and perspective to these legal and non-legal issues.”

Shnider is already establishing herself outside the walls of Maryland Carey Law as a forceful advocate on juvenile disciplinary issues. This semester, she is continuing her work from this past summer at the Center for Children’s Law and Policy in Washington, D.C., where she works to help inform policies surrounding juvenile detention alternatives, the reduction of racial and ethnic disparities in juvenile arrests and incarceration, and ending the practice of solitary confinement for kids.

Prof. Pinard believes Shnider will use her legal career to “address the individual injustices, and change the systems that have allowed these injustices to persist.” For now, Shnider chooses to keep the focus on her clients and the other young people in Baltimore that need her support. “These students have these big dreams but often times adults are the ones that are helping crush those dreams,” she says. “That shouldn’t be our role, our role should be lifting them up, especially in communities where kids are trying so hard.”