Charlotte School of Law starts food drive so students get something to eat

Updated: Jan. 28, 2017 at 4:33 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, NC (Michael Gordon/The Charlotte Observer) - Cut off from millions of dollars in federal loans because of their school's chronic failings, students at Charlotte School of Law still don't know how they'll pay tuition, rent and utilities.

Now they are apparently running out of food.

In response, one of their professors announced Friday that some faculty and other law school employees have started a food drive to make sure students of the reeling school have enough to eat. Scott Sigman, director of the school's clinical programs, sent out an email alerting students that the stockpiled food is available in the student commons.

"I know that times are uncertain right now," he wrote. "If you are low on funds and in need of food, please take what you need, keeping in mind that others may have needs as well."

Students have been racked by financial anxiety since shortly before Christmas, when federal officials announced that they had made Charlotte School of Law the first accredited law school ever to lose access to federal student loans. Last year, Charlotte School of Law students received almost $50 million from the program for tuition and living expenses. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced it had broken off negotiations with the school to extend some of the loans through the spring semester.

The government agency and the American Bar Association have both accused the for-profit law school of hiding chronic problems with admissions, curriculum and test scores from students. But the cutoff of federal money has left students pondering how they will pay for school and living expenses. There are reports that some students have stopped attending classes because they can't afford gas for their cars. Observers say more than half the student body has already left the school.

Some of those who have chosen to remain are struggling to meet basic needs.

"How can we be prepare for class when we can't feed ourselves?" said third-year student Margaret Kocaj of Charlotte. "How can we study when we have headaches because we can't afford to eat? This is our reality now. There are no words."

For weeks, school leaders have been promising to list of series of alternatives to replace missing federal loans. But deadlines have come and gone. Thursday, the school sent out an email that it would release details within 72 hours.

Sigman, along with other faculty, staff and school administrators, have stepped in to help meet the need for food. A makeshift pantry has been set up in the student commons of the College Street school.

"These are my students. I teach them every day," Sigman said Friday. "They are not some generalized group of people. I believe in them. I want them taken care of."

His email on Friday gave detailed instructions on where students can find some of what they need. The canned and boxed foods, for example, are in the cabinet below the third microwave in the commons. The cereal boxes are beside it. A jar of peanut butter and a couple of loaves of bread have been left there, too.

Sigman also said he has taped a "wish list" to one of the counters.

"If you have a very specific need that you seriously believe you will not be able to afford, then put it on the list," he said. "I can't guarantee that an item on the wish list will show up, but at least I could let others know."

Sigman said he will attempt to raise money for more provisions as long as there is a need. Finally, Sigman asked that students help make their commons "a judgment-free zone."

"If people need to take something for themselves, then we should encourage them to do just that," he said. "I hope that those who might observe someone taking an item would respect the need to keep that information to themselves."

Rob Barchiesi, one of a growing number of students who had sued Charlotte School of Law, blames school leaders for turning "a law school into a food pantry."

"By remaining open the school has done more harm than good, and the results appear to be starving students who are on the verge of homelessness. It's incredible," he said.

Sigman's former faculty colleague Brian Clarke said both the school and the Department of Education deserve blame.

"It breaks my heart," said Clarke, now on the faculty of Western Carolina University. "I don't even know what to say. There are students who can't put gas in the car to get to class. There are students with children. Those kids can't eat because of this."

With that in mind, Sigman made a specific request for the food pantry wish list.

Baby food.