Legal eagles take wing in high-school law classes

When students were hesitant to stage a sit-in at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, they knew where to turn for advice: the kids in the Street Law class.

Equipped with information about their First Amendment rights, they went forward with the protest at the Washington, D.C., school. They deemed it a success when the principal sat down to hear their views about the circumstances under which a popular teacher had quit.

That practical application is Exhibit A for law education's relevance to teens.

Through partnerships with 40-plus law schools and a textbook that's widely used around the United States, the Street Law curriculum covers everything from consumer protection to constitutional rights. It brings police into classrooms to explain laws, especially as they apply to juveniles. And it capitalizes on students' enthusiasm for the down-to-earth subject matter by weaving in lifelong skills such as critical thinking and public speaking.

Based at Georgetown University's Law Center in Washington, the project began in the early 1970s, when "there was a cry for relevant curriculum," says Lee Arbetman, Street Law Inc.'s director of US programs. Since then, about 10,000 law students have earned credit for teaching in high schools nationwide.

But the learning flows both ways. Because the schools are mostly urban, Mr. Arbetman says, it "makes a difference in the way the bar understands ... communities of color." And by inspiring future lawyers, Street Law "is going to have the impact down the road of increasing the diversity of the legal profession."

One of the most popular features of law-education programs is the mock-trial competition, which usually takes place citywide. Students play lawyers and witnesses in hypothetical cases - a fraternity being sued after a drunken pledge dies, an abused wife accused of murdering her husband. The person behind the bench is often a real judge.

Students prepare for months, and learn the value of spending time crafting their arguments, says Matt Johnson, a social-studies teacher at Banneker who works with a Georgetown law student to oversee the class. "They require numerous revisions and rewrites - it's not typical of high school projects where you turn it in and it's over," he says.

At Banneker, Street Law is an elective for seniors - who have triumphed in the city's mock trial competition for the past several years. Any senior can opt in, and that's a strength of the course, Mr. Johnson says, because "some kids bring a totally different perspective to a set of facts and human behaviors."

That peer interaction is a highlight for student Lisa Haileab. "It's not just written work, but we talk about the way we feel and issues we're passionate about," she says. She's also impressed with the practicality of the course. "I didn't know that breaking someone's stuff was abuse," she says of a recent lesson on domestic-violence law. Now, she feels better prepared to avoid becoming a victim or an abuser. She also wants to pursue a law career.

In communities where tensions can run high between police and residents, Street Law helps build empathy on both sides of the badge. Several students in Johnson's class say they now understand both police procedures and their own rights. "When I look at a police officer, I feel like I'm armed with information," says Shantay Fields, who is considering law school.

"Students are exposed to an area they may not have been otherwise," says Sylvia Isaac, a social-studies teacher at the School Without Walls in Washington, which partners with a law firm that offers kids internships.

Organizations like the American Bar Association have recently begun to push for more diversity and public-education efforts, Street Law's Arbetman says. One law school that's taking such steps is the University of Maine in Portland. Already, 400 students participate in annual mock trial competitions in the state, says Julia Underwood, codirector of the state's law-related education program. Next year, she's launching a pilot Street Law class.

"We routinely get letters from teachers saying [law education] has completely changed the way they approach teaching," she says, shifting the focus from memorization to "experiential learning."

Washington lawyer Jacques Smith, who serves as a mentor, says it's easy to see the long-range impact of the Street Law approach. Whether teens become lawyers or Wal-Mart managers, Mr. Smith says, former students "talk about issues they confront, where the critical thought that we teach them in this class stays with them."

E-mail teichers@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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