Matthew Sykes’ success story could easily have been one of failure.
Growing up in Atlantic City, drugs and even guns were the norm, he found. It’s what kids did to be accepted.
But rather than ending up in jail, Sykes graduated from Rutgers School of Law-Camden and is launching a program that will help teens in the juvenile justice system in Atlantic and Camden counties return to school.
The South Jersey Education Reentry Program is hosted by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C., and will mobilize lawyers to advocate on behalf of young offenders.
“For quite some time, we really wanted to expand our focus area to include kids who are vulnerable because they really stall at that intersection between juvenile delinquency and education denial,” said Brenda Shum, director of the committee’s Educational Opportunities Project. “Matt’s proposal really does that.”
Sykes, 25, developed the idea when he saw a gap in juvenile offenders continuing their education. Unlike many other states, New Jersey provides no court-appointed attorneys after these cases are adjudicated. Often, the juveniles cannot return to school or to the alternative education programs that may best suit them.
Sykes said the program takes over at the endpoint of the so-called “school to prison pipeline,” a trend that civil rights proponents see as funneling mostly minority offenders out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.
“I saw a gap where there was a lack of educational continuity,” he said. “I thought private attorneys could play a role.”
Sykes received a fellowship last year for the initiative, and is excited as intake has begun and training materials are set.
His alma mater, Rutgers, will also play a role, with law students joining as advocates when the new school year begins in September.
The program focuses on general education students 13 to 19, with special education students able to participate until age 21. Atlantic City and Camden have had high numbers in these areas.
“A lot less attention is paid to the population of kids Matt is working with in this program,” Shum said. “We have a lot of excitement and hope for a great deal of impact resulting from Matt’s project in South Jersey.”
She said the goal is to begin small so that there is manageable supervision as the program begins. Then, “moving forward, the only limitation will be the number of attorneys and law students we’ll be able to recruit and train.”
The first training begins April 12 at Dechert LLP law firm in Philadelphia. Sykes said he hopes to also have Atlantic County law firms on board by that time.
The Lawyers’ Committee works with a number of firms that donate pro bono time, Shum said. Advocates don’t need to be lawyers, unless they are involved in an administrative hearing, so there will be chances for others to be trained as well.
“We’ll also link students with other services if they have outside needs,” Sykes said.
For him, it’s a way to give back and to use the opportunities his academic success affords him.
Sykes, who lived in Bungalow Park, knows what it’s like to grow up where involvement in drugs — either use or sale — is considered a prerequisite to be a part of the group.
In any circle, at least one person has a gun and the person who is “the good influence only sells a little bit of bud, rather than heroin.”
“If you’re not involved at all, you are an outsider almost,” Sykes said.
Someone was shot at his bus stop freshman year at Atlantic City High School. He saw friends get in trouble, and even wound up arrested at 16 for possession of drug paraphernalia.
Because it was summer, he didn’t miss school. With the support of a strong family — and a lot of blessings and luck, he said — he wound up graduating high school and heading to college.
It was there he found his calling for the law and his faith in Islam. Both helped him straighten his path, Sykes said.
His background gives Sykes a unique insight to the program, Shum said.
“We are just so excited and feel very fortunate to have Matthew working with us,” she said. “We were immediately impressed from the moment he submitted his proposal, (and then) he had such a compelling personal story.”
Now Sykes hopes that he can work behind the scenes to help other kids from his hometown.
“These kids have aspirations,” he said. “They just need the right people to talk to.”
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