Legal Eagles Take Wing in High-School Law Classes

By Stacy A. Teicher writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 5, 2000 | Go to article overview

Legal Eagles Take Wing in High-School Law Classes


Stacy A. Teicher writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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