After graduation, Oscar Lopez ’13 is going back to school.
But this time it will not be as a student. The Los Angeles native will be working in Washington, D.C., as a Skadden Fellow to develop alternatives to the so-called “zero-tolerance” discipline polices in place at public schools throughout the country. The idea behind this initiative, which is run by an organization called Advancement Project, is to keep kids in the classroom, rather than suspending or expelling them for minor infractions.
When stories about school violence—such as the recent shooting in Newtown, Conn.—receive extended media coverage, support for zero-tolerance policies tends to increase. But Lopez believes out-of-school punishment should be reserved for the most serious behavioral problems. “Using suspension as a tool to get rid of troublemakers can backfire,” he says. “Students may be less likely to finish school and more likely to get involved in gangs or drugs.”
Lopez’s own educational background is a story of persistence and consistent achievement. After excelling in high school and attending a community college for two years, he enrolled at UCLA, graduating with a degree in psychology and minors in education studies, civic engagement, and Chicano studies.
At Columbia Law School, Lopez served as an instructor at the High School Law Institute, a program that provides Law School students the opportunity to work with New York City high school students on oral advocacy and writing skills in the context of classes dealing with criminal law, constitutional law, and mock trial strategy. Lopez also participated in the Challenging the Consequences of Mass Incarceration Clinic. He visited clients in state and federal prisons to develop potential legal claims addressing prisoners’ conditions of confinement.
“The Advancement Project is about [ending] zero-tolerance policies, but it’s also about ending the school-to-prison pipeline,” he says. “I felt like I needed an understanding of what’s happening in the prison system.”
During his third year, Lopez also started the Law School’s chapter of the Latino/a Law Students Association Moot Court, part of a national competition that focuses on exploring contemporary legal issues affecting the Latino community.
Columbia Law School, he says, has given him “the confidence to stand up when others might not stand up.”