Students at UMass Amherst Assist State Anti-Discrimination Agency In Reducing Its Backlog

AMHERST, Mass. - A group of students from the legal studies department at the University of Massachusetts is helping officials at the Springfield office of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) clear a backlog of cases filed with the agency. Under the semester-long internship program, students assist the MCAD staff and the agency receives additional case workers.

Eight UMass undergraduates are working full-time for the MCAD during the spring semester, according to Stephen Arons, professor of legal studies at UMass and director of the Legal Studies/MCAD Joint Clinical Project in Springfield. The students took a one-semester course on civil rights law in the fall, take another during the internship, and will participate in a fall semester senior seminar where they will draw on their work at the MCAD, he says. During the seminars, the students will also help prepare the next group in the program, according to Arons.

Jerrold Levinsky, acting general counsel for the MCAD in Springfield, sa ys the current group of students is helping process up to 300 cases that have been on file with the agency for at least three years. "They are working directly with our staff on these old cases," Levinsky says. "The experience is profound because these are real-life cases where people believe they have been the subject of discrimination."

Arons says the intent of the program is to give students the experience of dealing with the complexity of these cases, and also provide them with the academic background to analyze what they have learned about what he termed "society’s most corrosive social problem." At the same time, he says, both the University and the MCAD benefit. "This is a good example of two state agencies cooperating and staying within their separate missions, and it demonstrates how a carefully supervised combination of academic and practical learning can make the University a major contributor to the community’s growth and well-being," says Arons. It’s also important because in recent years, the number of anti-discrimination cases filed with the MCAD has increased while the agency’s budget has stayed the same or declined slightly, Arons says.

Begun last year as a pilot program, the project has received financial support from the University in the form of grants, and has received material support and supervision from the MCAD. It has also received help from the private sector in the form of a small grant from the Community Foundation and free daily bus passes from the Springfield-based Peter Pan Bus Co., to help students travel from the Amherst campus to the MCAD’s downtown Springfield office, Arons says. The bus passes were critical to making the program work, he says.