Feb. 14 became the Center for Student Legal Service’s “birthday” in 1997. Now, 25 years later, the center is celebrating its anniversary and the growth of its services to students at Ohio University’s Athens campus.
The center is a legal insurance program built on students’ tuition for every semester and offers services to those who face issues in Athens County courts.
The center even had a hand in protecting the Baker 70, the people who participated in the Baker University Center Protest in 2017, when they were arrested.
The Center for Student Legal Service, or CSLS, handles criminal and civil offenses. Courtney Boyd, office manager for the CSLS, said the center covers cases from speeding tickets, disorderly conduct, alcohol-related offenses such as DUIs, student housing and landlord tenant issues and a handful of other things that students might find themselves running into.
Throughout the years, there have been a plethora of benefits provided by the center for students. In 2021 alone, the center saved or recovered $18,934 for students in civil cases and has been able to find benefits in criminal cases, as well.
“For criminal cases, some of the biggest benefits that we get for our clients is a reduction in their sentencing, and sometimes if we can work out a dismissal, we’re able to keep them from getting a conviction on their record,” Boyd said.
Boyd said these benefits can help students succeed after graduation by not having something on their record that would keep them from obtaining a job post-graduation.
“There were two debt collection cases within that number that we were able to actually get dismissed,” Boyd said. “And neither of those cases can be reopened against that particular student because of the way it was dismissed with prejudice. So that particular student had over $1,000 waited. He will never have to worry about having to repay that.”
The center was also able to dispute an unemployment claim that was made against a student for wrongfully gaining unemployment. This helped her rightfully collect employment and ensure she did not have to pay anyone back.
Boyd said with the center opening in 1997, there have been several attorneys. Currently, Stephanie Russell-Ramos serves as managing attorney and Brenda Jean Searcy serves as staff attorney.
Russell-Ramos has been practicing law since 2011 and graduated from University of Akron School of Law. When she first came to Athens, she worked for the Athens Public Defender’s Office. She then took a position as a prosecutor for a year and took the position at the center in November 2021.
“I’ve loved everything that we’ve been doing here,” Russell-Ramos said. “As a public defender, I did represent a lot of students in the past that weren’t eligible for services here. So I’m very familiar with working with students and I enjoy working with students. That’s one of the reasons that I took this job.”
Rusell-Ramos emphasized the importance of the center and talked about how with the $15 fee students are charged to their OU Student Center, students have access to any type of legal advice. She said that a private attorney would cost more than the consultation fee.
Boyd recommends students call the office if they are in need of its service and said students that waive the $15 fee can still benefit from the center’s program.
“We would just serve them on a fee basis,” Boyd said. “It is a substantially low fee, but it at least gives them a resource that they otherwise wouldn’t have.”
Alongside Russell-Ramos is Searcy, staff attorney. She graduated from Capital University Law School in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic and can relate to many students who were in school or graduated during the pandemic.
“A classmate told me about the opening at the center, and I’m so glad because I am really happy to be here,” Searcy said. “I think it’s a perfect fit for me.”
Searcy started her position in December 2021 and feels she has the luxury to devote as much time as she needs to her cases.
“I just love that I get to dig into the law, see where the facts in the law lie and I can represent the clients as the case demands,” Searcy said. “It’s so rewarding.”
The board of directors is composed of 11 students with Russell-Ramos and Searcy serving as attorneys, Boyd serving as the executive secretary and Larry Hayman serving as faculty advisor. As for student representation, Rhyan Goodman serves as executive chairperson and Emily Zeiler serves as executive vice chairperson.
Goodman and Zeiler both were not knowledgeable of the center and its services before they started working there. However, now passionate about the center and its services, Goodman said he has been able to see how the US justice system works and how it can be manipulated sometimes for people that have money or resources.
“We don’t encourage people to commit crimes, we don’t encourage people to use fake IDs, we don’t encourage people to have DUIs,” Goodman said. “We believe that every student should have legal access just like any other adult … and we believe that legal representation should be affordable, which is why it’s only $15.”
Goodman said he was proud to be able to guide students through some of the most challenging times in their life, and Zeiler said she feels the same way.
“Having the center is very important, and I don’t think a lot of Ohio University students realize that,” Zeiler said.
As the center celebrates 25 years, Boyd, Russell-Ramos, Searcy, Goodman and Zeiler all hope people take the time to see the benefits and learn more about their rights as students.
“I feel like the benefits that we provide to students are numerous,” Russell-Ramos said.