Jen Story Receives Children’s Champion Award

The NCBA Juvenile Justice & Children’s Rights Section presented the Children’s Champion Award to Jen Story on Friday, February 16, during a meeting of the section council at the N.C. Bar Center.

Story serves as managing attorney for the Right to Education Project of Legal Aid of North Carolina in Durham. The program, formerly known as Advocates for Children’s Services or ACS, is a statewide education justice project that advocates for the individual rights of students in the public school system and fights to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.

Story, who served as chair of the section in 2018-19 and co-chair of the section’s racial justice subcommittee for five years, was nominated by LaToya Powell, who presented the award and is herself a former recipient and section chair.

Jen, a white woman with long brown hair, wears a black blouse, grey pants and black shoes. She stands with LaToya, a Black woman with black hair and glasses, who wears a black and white flowered shirt and grey pants, Michelle, a white woman with blond hair who wears a black shirt, black pants, and tan jacket, and Stacey, a white woman with brown hair who wears a black blouse and pants and a maroon jacket.

From left, presenter LaToya Powell and recipient Jen Story are joined by Michelle Lynch, section chair, and Judge Stacey Bawtinhimer, vice chair.

“When I think of a ‘true champion’ for North Carolina’s youth,” Powell stated, “Jen Story is one of the first names that comes to mind. Her entire professional career has been dedicated to child advocacy, focusing primarily on youth from underserved communities, including low-income and minority communities.”

The honoree, Powell continued, readily meets and exceeds the criteria requirements for the award.

“Jen has the highest ethical standards; is held in the highest regard by both the bench and bar; and demonstrates a deep, caring desire to help children. Jen is a highly regarded attorney, who is well known throughout the state of North Carolina for her tireless advocacy on behalf of public-school students.”

Story is a graduate of Rhodes College in Memphis and UNC School of Law. She moved to North Carolina in 2005 and began to focus her work on youth and education advocacy, at first as the Juvenile Court/School Liaison for Judicial District 15B and a Guardian ad Litem.

Story shared: “Prior to law school, I worked for a number of years with youth in Orange County, Chatham County, and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools who were already court-involved. While I loved working with the youth and the other stakeholders I got to meet, I wanted to do more to keep youth out of the juvenile system in the first place.

“Most of the students I worked with had been struggling in school for years – often without any therapeutic interventions – before things spiraled into an incident triggering court involvement. It was frustrating to me that interventions only started after court involvement had been initiated, and so I wanted to try to work more on the proactive side of things to keep kids out of the Juvenile Court system period. That took me to law school and from there I went directly to Legal Aid, where I have been doing education justice work as an attorney since 2012.”

In other words, Story went to law school to do exactly what it is she has been doing for the past 12 years.

“This is definitely what I wanted to be doing,” Story said. “I wanted to keep advocating for students, but I wanted the law degree as a tool in my toolbox to deepen that advocacy. While in law school, I honed my course selections and internships narrowly around education justice and civil rights work. That was a risky choice given that I would be graduating at the tail end of the recession when jobs continued to be scarce and the market flooded with recently licensed attorneys. The risk thankfully paid off for me, however, and I was hired on by Legal Aid of NC to engage in the exact work that I went back to school to do.”

Legal Aid of NC’s Right to Education Project, she continued, strives to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline in North Carolina.

“We advocate for students who are being pushed out of our school systems,” Story said. “We know that schools are where students can come alive and can build the foundation upon which the rest of their lives will be built. And so we fight zealously to protect their right to a high quality education that sets them up for long-term success.

“We intervene to uplift students’ potential, to amplify their voices, and fight for their rights when their right to education is being taken away, either because they’re facing suspension, their special education needs aren’t being addressed, they’re facing discrimination, or other factors are happening at school that create a hostile environment where they can’t learn. School should be a welcoming space where students grow and thrive, and where they build their path to their future selves. Unfortunately, students and parents increasingly reach out to us because school has become a space where many students feel and are treated as disposable.”

Although the Right to Education Project is based in Durham, it’s a statewide program that represents students and their parents throughout North Carolina, which is a tremendous undertaking.

“We are a very small project and cannot provide direct representation to every student who needs us,” Story said. “To close that gap, we have increased our efforts to get more information out into our communities. This is important both from a justice gap standpoint and from a community lawyering standpoint. We strongly believe that, if you’re going to work to change the climate and cultures of schools, it’s got to come from schools listening to students and parents, not just to lawyers.

“So even in cases where we can’t offer representation, we really work hard to put information out there to help validate what parents and students know and to support them in strengthening their requests. They know when things are wrong: They just don’t necessarily know the legal terms to attach to the problem. To that end, we’ve tried to increase our ability to put legal information and tools in the hands of students and parents so that they feel more confident and more supported in asserting their rights. Those efforts help parents and students more confidently self-advocate, and also help us reserve our staff bandwidth to focus on the cases that require a lawyer to advance legal claims.”

In accepting the Children’s Champion Award, Story does so on behalf of scores of individuals who have shared in her journey.

“I’ve always struggled with individual awards,” Story concluded. “There’s no part of what I’ve done that’s ever been on my own. I stand on the shoulders of all of the advocates and mentors and community organizers who have come before me, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder now with the incredible team that I’m working with and the client communities we serve.

“I’m super humbled and grateful to be personally recognized, but I could not do this work without, not just my incredible colleagues, but the parents, students, and community advocates that we work with day in and day out. I think any legal advocacy would ring hollow without that community around. I am beyond privileged to have been so warmly welcomed into and supported by that advocacy community for almost two decades in North Carolina, and am looking forward to many more decades working in collaboration for education justice.”

The recipients of Children’s Champion Award should be persons who:

  • has the highest ethical standards;
  • is held in the highest regard by both the bench and bar;
  • demonstrates a deep, caring desire to help children;
  • demonstrates a long-term commitment to improving the well-being of children through a minimum of five years of professional service related to the protection of children and/or children’s rights, with particular emphasis given to the length of the nominee’s commitment and service;
  • has taken action to improve the administration of justice for children through direct advocacy, research, policy development, and/or volunteer service; and
  • is committed to the mission of the Juvenile Justice & Children’s Rights Section as demonstrated by exemplary service to the section.

Previous recipients of the award are:

2018 – Deana Flemming
2019 – Eric Zogry
2020 – LaToya Powell

Russell Rawlings is director of external affairs and communications for the North Carolina Bar Association.