Whose Side is the Law On?
By Robert Schroeder
Interim Chicago Public Schools CEO Terry Mazany recently convened committees to advise him on the next steps for the CPS system, in particular how family and community relations affect student learning.
For low-income and minority students in Chicago, the travails of tenuous family life and tepid relations with police are often the direct influences Mazany set out to explore.
Beginning Sunday, March 10, National Louis University hosted six Howard University law students, led by National Louis University associate professor Dr. Harry Ross, as part of an alternative spring break trip to teach legal workshops in Chicago high schools and to offer students a glimpse of where their education can lead.
At Uplift Community High School, Wells High School and Farragut Academy High School, the Howard students led conversations with students discussing fourth amendment rights, state-by-state DNA laws, cyber-bullying and Harper Lee's fictional Mockingbird trial. National Louis University alumni and current students in the Urban Scholars Teacher Education Partnership (USTEP) led the classes they collaborated with.
"I was really interested that they all had a deep-founded sense of justice," said Mary Maudjahid, a second-year law student at Howard. "When we talk about different things and discuss hypotheticals, it makes them more empathetic: I want to have a fair justice system, so it's important that everyone has a fair justice system."
At Farragut, high school students demonstrated their own peer jury process, a disciplinary system that refers minor offenses to a student board to mete out non-punishment based solutions. The system keeps kids in school rather than being sent home for minor offenses. "I was not this serious as a high school student, or as aware of problem-solving skills as they're talking about, and how to manage situations rather than escalate them," said Stanley Love Tate III, a first-year law student. "I'm so impressed with them."
During fourth amendment rights workshops at Uplift and Farragut, Howard students asked the high school students how many had ever been stopped by the police. The almost unanimous show of hands illustrates how fractious relations between the police and city residents have become in some areas. The message from the law students was two-fold: know and exercise your rights of habeas corpus, but always remain respectful of the police.
That message may be difficult for some students to receive who feel consistently slighted by police. Howard University Law associate professor Josephine Ross, sister of National Louis' Dr. Ross, said the unequal balance on the street is a topic that troubles her in her own teaching.
"One of the things that has been bothering me for a while as I teach criminal procedure is this lack of connection between what the law says versus the reality on the streets; it's day and night," Ross said. "That fiction is really put to the test when we try to explain the fourth amendment to the students, and it's a very, very difficult translation."
By week's end, the Howard students reflected that their roles were not so much as teachers but as counselors and motivators. In a class of in-school suspension students at Farragut, one student threw a book at another at the start of the session.
"We went out and had a talk, and after that you saw his attitude was not an indicator of his intelligence," Tate said. "He was one of the brightest students in the classroom, but you need to take time to bring that out of him."
National Louis's Dr. Ross, who coordinates the USTEP program, said that it is the stories of personal impact that has principals asking him to continue the partnership with Howard Law in the future.
"A student came up to us and said, that was so great, I really enjoyed that workshop," Dr. Ross said. "He said, 'Tell me more about Howard, maybe I should go to college, I really need to think more about this college thing.'
"The key is, we have to keep bringing the world in to our schools and we can't do that without partnerships between law schools, education schools, high schools, museums, all sorts of other entities, so we all have to be involved in this together, because it doesn't just take the community to raise a child, it takes the world."