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Nelson Mar, JD/MSW '98

Nelsom Mar, JD/MSW '98, makes a case for social justice

Mosaics, Fall 2014

by Jana Eisenberg

“I fell into educational law, and now represent students and their families in the South Bronx.”

Nelson Mar, JD/MSW 1998, has a deep awareness of trauma as a factor in many social issues and social work applications.

A senior staff attorney at Legal Services NYC for the past 15 years, Mar’s social work background plays a crucial role in his ability to work with and understand clients—as well as to see a bigger picture for the issues with which they are dealing. (He says that he’d like to see all attorneys required to receive some social work training; specifically an intervention course.)

From an early age, the New York City native, 41, says, “I envisioned becoming a lawyer; I had a deep desire to do social justice work. My social work education made me keen to focus on those most at risk and in need; I fell into educational law, and now represent students and their families in the South Bronx.”

Over ten years ago, Mar and others started to observe a disturbing trend, one that continues today: schools, without the appropriate tools, training or resources, are in the practice of calling 911 to deal with disruptive classroom behavior in students—sending young children to hospital emergency rooms even though they are not in need of medical care. This is traumatizing for both the children and their families—and also ineffective.

Earlier this year, on behalf of six students and their families who have been subject to the practice, Mar filed a lawsuit against the City of New York and the Department of Education.

Says Mar, “This is about the sociological and physiological impacts of poverty. Everyone who lives in impoverished neighborhoods suffers traumatic stress and insecurity; there are higher crime rates, more exposure to violence.”

“Many of these kids are diagnosed with ADHD; however, PTSD symptoms and qualifications are very similar,” attests Mar. “Trauma, not chemical imbalance, is causing this behavior. More and more research is arriving at the conclusion that to be effective, social work needs to be trauma-centered; I know that the School of Social Work takes that view. There are similarities between what these kids experience and what those who live in a war zone go through. The research is honing in on that link.”

With the current lawsuit, Mar says, “We are not minimizing the seriousness of the disruptive situations in school. We do want to highlight the connection between poverty and its impact on children.

“Longer-term, we want to address the root causes—to reduce the ‘achievement gap’ and prevent more of these kids from being funneled into a ‘school-to-prison’ pipeline.”

“In the shorter term, we want to encourage the City and the Department of Education to change these policies and practices,” concludes Mar. “Schools with large populations of kids suffering dramatic exposure or toxic stress need increased resources. Then the kids’ needs can be better met. We want to make sure that there are fewer incidents resulting in teachers and administrators thinking that a hospital room visit is the solution.”