Lawyers bring Constitution home to Boston high schoolers

The tension level in Patricia O'Brien's 12th-grade law class cranked up a few notches. Visiting lawyers Ruth Dillingham and Mary K. Ryan told student Carl Anderson that the ``school authorities'' were suspending him, three weeks before the end of school. The lawyers were using Carl, a student at Mario Umana Harbor School of Science and Technology, a Boston public school, to demonstrate how the Fourth Amendment affects our daily lives. They were among the 175 members of the Boston Bar Association who volunteered to talk to high school students about the US Constitution as part of the Bicentennial of the Constitution Committee Law-Related Education Program. The lawyers visited 15,000 students in nearly all of Boston's 17 public high schools last week.

The fictional scenario the lawyers used was this: To get rid of the drug problem, school officials had police bring in dogs to sniff for drugs. Ms. Dillingham says to a wide-eyed Carl: ``You're in class. In walks the headmaster, two policemen, and a couple of German Shepherds. They walk down the aisles. When they get to you, they go wild.'' She explains that Carl is frisked and found to be carrying (dramatic pause) ... a dog biscuit.

Not believing that the biscuit alone would set off these specially trained dogs, the authorities decide he must have drugs somewhere else. They search Carl's locker. They don't find any drugs, but in a zipped-up gym bag they find two periodicals: Students for the Overthrow of Government and Penthouse.

Carl is suspended indefinitely. Carl's parents are furious and call a lawyer. The classroom becomes a jury as Dillingham and Ms. Ryan ask students to determine who was right.

Dillingham, representing the school authorities, and Ryan, on the student's side, argue various points. Does the school have the right to search Carl's locker after finding no drugs on him? Can students expect the same rights of privacy in school that they have outside of school? What rights does this student have?

Student reaction is mixed. Some stare straight ahead, eyes glazing over when the talk gets too technical. Others zing back legal principles they've acquired from the law class. ``This guy is - what, 17 to 19, right?'' says Tangela Brinson. ``Doesn't it matter that he's not showing the Penthouse to a seven-year-old?''

``Hearing from a teacher all year things like the age limits on pornography is different from hearing it from outside sources,'' says Ms. O'Brien later in the teachers' lounge.

``Students this age have trouble transferring what they learn in class to the outside world,'' she says. ``Having the lawyers come in tells them, `Yes, this does affect you. This is something that you need to know in your day-to-day existence.'''

Jewel Gilmer said, ``To be honest, I never really thought about the Constitution very much until I started to take law class, because you just don't recognize it in your life, and people don't tell you about it. I thought the program was excellent. It helped me to grab a better concept and understand it, and enabled me to see what goes on in a courtroom.''

The students weren't the only ones who got something out of the program. Ryan said that it's given her a new appreciation of the Constitution. ``The way it came about - people getting together for a convention and reaching a compromise - it's exactly the way you try to do it today. When you have a document that can accommodate that kind of change, then you've got something that's going to carry us into the future as well.''

This program is modeled after a 19-year-old venture in Washington, D.C., spearheaded by the Federal Bar Association. Greggory Keith Spence, an attorney in Harvard University's general counsel office and coordinator of the program, worked on the Washington program and felt it would serve well as part of the celebration of the Constitution here.

Mr. Spence says they are hoping to make the exercise an annual program. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Bar Association is planning to take its lawyers into every classroom in the state Sept. 17 to celebrate the signing of the Bill of Rights.

The students, by the way, in an informal hearing, voted unanimously to have Carl Anderson reinstated in school.

He looked relieved.

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