Taking it to the Street
By Drew Carroll
Yankee Stadium comes into view out the window of a Bronx bound 4 train and I feel a tinge of excitement.
I’m not going to a game, though. Instead, I get off at the next stop, from where I head for my weekly visit to a seventh grade classroom inside Jordan L. Mott Middle School.
My mission: To teach the class of minority students – mostly black and Latino—about the Constitution. Lately, the lessons have had real world practicalities for these kids.
Trayvon Martin’s shooting in Florida has sparked a nationwide discussion about that state’s “Stand Your Ground Law.” People in New York City are also talking about the New York Police Department’s “Stop-and-Frisk” policy, which is said to apply disproportionately to minorities.
The statistics bear out such suspicions: of the 684,330 stops last year, 87 percent were either black or Hispanic. The NYPD says that this is not due to racial profiling, but because more cops are assigned to high crime (mostly minority) urban areas.
Though some lawmakers are trying to craft legislation to curb the racial profiling inherent in the city’s Stop-and-Frisk Policy, it’s the law for now, and one that these seventh graders are familiar with, from their parents, siblings, or even from personal experience – though they are only 13.
My visit to the school is coordinated through Street Law, Inc., a non-profit organization that provides information to underprivileged communities about law. The program was created in honor of the slain Robert F. Kennedy, and in the 40 years since it was created, Street Law has expanded into a million dollar operation bringing legal education to the underserved across the United States and in 40 countries worldwide. Over 100 law schools participate, offering practical legal lessons in their communities.
New York Law School’s Street Law program is designed specifically to meet the challenges presented to minority communities by the city’s Stop-and-Frisk policy. For ten Fridays in the spring, New York Law School students travel to the South Bronx, lesson plans in hand. With the fourth amendment as the focal point, middle school students learn about the law governing police stops, frisks, searches, and arrests, read Supreme Court cases about their rights as students, and then argue both sides of the issues. It may be hard to imagine a group of middle school students sitting around talking about a Supreme Court case, but that is the beauty of Street Law. As one student recently told me, “I need to talk about this,” and with Street Law, she gets that chance.
At the conclusion of the program the middle school students are invited to the law school to participate in a moot court competition. For those of you who have not been to law school, at moot court participants argue a case before a panel of “judges” who often interrupt to ask questions. The young students get the chance to show and audience how much they have learned about the law – and to think on their feet.
The program’s notable alumni include current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts, who, at his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee cited it as part of his pro bono experience. Then Judge Roberts hardly needed to pad his illustrious resume, so it is telling that he highlighted his experience with Street Law, with which he’s remained active in since his law school days, providing video lessons to be distributed throughout the country. His involvement speaks volumes about how well regarded the program is in the highest legal circles.
And there’s this: Senator Ted Kennedy, on the other side of the fence from then nominee Roberts on many issues, piped up during the discussion of Street Law at the confirmation hearings to say, “that is a marvelous program. I commend you for your involvement in that.” John Roberts and Ted Kennedy weren’t often in agreement, but the value of Street Law was a consensus-builder.
Katie Smelas, a third year law student and the current director of Street Law at New York Law School, says the program has allowed her to merge two great passions: the law and kids. Leading a room full of middle school students provides law students with invaluable experience. “You never know what to expect,” says Ms. Smelas, “which keeps you on your toes.”
Each week presents a challenge for the law student mentors to figure out how to convey complex information in a way that middle school students will not only understand, but also enjoy. Melissa Nuruzzaman, a third year student at New York Law School, has been involved in Street Law the past two years. At first she struggled to keep her students on task. Seems they were too preoccupied throwing paper at one another to focus on Street Law. Then Ms. Nuruzzaman decided to improvise. She had the students write down questions on small pieces of paper. Each time students answered a question incorrectly, he was subjected to a paper ball attack. Not only did the game get the students on task, it encouraged them to formulate difficult questions to stump their classmates.
Street Law is inspiring the next generation of attorneys while educating young teenaged students about issues that affect their daily lives. The students are able to apply their legal knowledge to real life situations. Though encouraged to never be disrespectful to the police, these students are taught to use their legal skills to avoid trouble situations, and defuse bad ones.
Some of them even express the desire to become policemen. Or lawyers. Robert Kennedy once said, “The future is not a gift. It is an achievement.” Street Law inspires students, both middle and law school, to reach for meaningful futures.