Early in her law career, Cassie Burdyshaw JD'12 applied her passion for social justice to help bring about significant positive change in a court system.
When she started as policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, as few as five unexcused school absences could result in a court referral. That led to a growing percentage of juvenile offenders in the court system mostly because of absences from school. West Virginia was one of just two states with an increase in youth confinement since 2000.
"Studies have found that low-risk youth in community-based programs have significantly lower recidivism rates than low-risk youth in residential treatment facilities. Placing truant youths in residential facilities increases the likelihood they'll re-enter the juvenile justice system and, ultimately, the adult criminal justice system," Burdyshaw says.
The new law Burdyshaw and her ACLU colleagues worked for includes a system of interventions by school officials for truancy, culminating in student engagement with the court only after 10 unexcused absences.
Her efforts in helping reform the state's truancy law is Burdyshaw's proudest career achievement so far.
"I enjoy policy work because the idealist in me gets to focus on big-picture change, while the pragmatist in me gets to focus on concrete, achievable goals," she says. "I love working on issues I'm passionate about, whether social justice or environmental conservation."
Burdyshaw's career now is on a conservation track, in her new position as advocacy and policy program director with Turtle Island Restoration Network, an ocean conservation nonprofit near California's Point Reyes National Seashore. She advocates for administrative and legislative policies for marine conservation, develops campaign plans, and works on strategic litigation.
Burdyshaw benefited from the wide range of VLS courses, and classes such as legislation and ocean law have been particularly relevant in her career.
She valued both the tight-knit community at VLS and the outward focus.
"I appreciated that VLS students and staff don't insulate themselves from the world outside law school. Activism abounded," Burdyshaw says. "Knowing there are like-minded individuals working to improve our communities and world gives me the courage and perseverance to do the work I love."