Law Students Help Bring High Court To High Schools

By Mark Walsh — April 25, 2001 6 min read
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Spring’s first blast of warm air is drifting into a classroom at Benjamin Banneker High School, making it all that much harder for the 18 students in this civics class to settle down after lunch.

Teachers Bruce Halloway Cork and Theresa Steed try to draw the students into a discussion about school desegregation, particularly about the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which held that separate educational facilities for blacks and whites were inherently unequal.

The students, almost all of whom are African-American, are familiar with the case and appear to grasp its importance. But the topic of desegregation seems to strike them as a bit dusty and quaint—they attend an urban public school system with an overwhelming black majority.

Mr. Cork and Ms. Steed keep at it. They are not the regular teachers here. They attend law school at American University across town and teach the Banneker High class three times a week. They’re participants in a program called the Marshall- Brennan Fellows, which sends law students into high schools to teach students about the Supreme Court and the constitutional rights of young people.

“Should society be completely colorblind?” Mr. Cork asks.

The history lesson about Brown slowly turns into a vibrant discussion about current inequalities in educational opportunity and the use of racial preferences in schools and colleges.

“Think of the vast majority of people in this country who don’t have a choice of where they go to school,” says Shantay Fields, a senior.

Asia Carter, another senior, says: “I’m sitting here in my school, and then I go out in the real world. Is the real world segregated? You eventually have to interact with people who are different than you.”

Discussions like the one at Banneker are being repeated at about a dozen other high schools in the District of Columbia, and a few more in its neighboring Maryland suburbs, under the Marshall-Brennan program. The program is named for the late Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and William J. Brennan Jr.

The founder is Jamin B. Raskin, a law professor at American University who is also the author of the textbook used in the program. We the Students: Supreme Court Cases For and About Students covers cases involving student prayers, searches of students, free speech, and desegregation, among other topics close to the classroom.

Student Free Speech

Mr. Raskin wrote the book and started the program after he got involved with a group of suburban students who had clashed with school administrators over a cable television show.

“We’re not doing enough to teach students about their rights, or about the Constitution, or about the Supreme Court,” Mr. Raskin said. “We’re wasting an incredible opportunity to teach students about what it means to be a citizen.”

Studies suggest that while most of the country’s schoolchildren receive formal instruction about the U.S. Constitution and the place of the Supreme Court in the federal system, their understanding of such topics is far from satisfactory.

A 1998 report card on civics from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that students had a weak grasp of the underlying principles of the Constitution. Barely 30 percent of high school seniors knew that judicial review by the Supreme Court was a check on majority political power.

The Supreme Court reluctantly raised its profile with all U.S. citizens last year through its controversial role in ending the presidential vote recounting in Florida.

While legal scholars debate the unprecedented turn of events and whether the decision damaged the court’s reputation, Mr. Raskin’s program seeks to teach students about the institution by using cases that hit close to home.

“Some people said I was crazy,” the law professor said. “They told me I would never be able to send law students into public high schools to teach students about their rights.”

But a social studies coordinator for the District of Columbia public schools embraced the idea, Mr. Raskin said, and his law students began teaching the course in seven Washington high schools in the 1999-2000 school year.

This year, his students are in 12 Washington schools and the city’s juvenile-corrections facility, as well as in several schools in nearby Montgomery County. Mr. Raskin hopes to see the program spread nationally.

Out of some 1,400 law students at American University, several hundred applied to become Marshall-Brennan Fellows, with 50 selected for this year.

“Mr. Raskin says he sympathizes with school administrators on Fourth Amendment issues such as searches of students for weapons, but he is more likely to side with students on First Amendment free-speech issues.

In the 1996 dispute that launched his activism on school law issues, he helped Montgomery County students battle administrators over a student program produced for a cable TV access show. It examined the debate over gay marriage.

The county school board eventually overruled the administrators and allowed the program to air on the district’s cable station.

Last year, Mr. Raskin took up the cause of a Virginia teacher dismissed after she objected to a random search of students in her classroom for weapons and drugs. He made the teacher’s case the subject of the American University law school’s national moot court competition last month.

Nat Hentoff, a syndicated columnist who writes frequently about civil liberties and the rights of students, hailed Mr. Raskin’s book last year, calling it “an extraordinarily clear and compelling book about the Constitution for high school students, as well as for their teachers and librarians.”

The praise has come not just from the left, but also from the right. Kenneth W. Starr, the former U.S. solicitor general and Whitewater special counsel who investigated President Clinton and is now a lawyer in private practice here, has helped teach in the program. Mr. Starr has taken his students on field trips to the Supreme Court.

Head Wraps

Back at Banneker High, the students don’t have a Mr. Starr leading their class. But they do have two enthusiastic second-year law students: Mr. Cork, a 27-year-old who once worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and Ms. Steed, a 25-year- old who served as an AmeriCorps volunteer.

“This program makes them think about these issues in a mature way,” Ms. Steed said.

At the beginning of the school year, the textbook lessons on student rights shifted to reality when male students at Banneker complained about a new rule against head wraps. Girls weren’t subject to the rule, so one of the boys in the Supreme Court class went to the administration to complain. The rule was dropped, Mr. Cork said.

As the class dissects the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion in Brown, Mr. Cork and Ms. Steed encourage the students to contemplate its relevance to more recent discrimination controversies.

“Should black students have preference over whites in college admissions?” asks Mr. Cork. And Ms. Steed wants to know: What about same-sex schools and colleges? “Can they be separate but equal?” she asks.

Another lively discussion ensues before it is cut short by the bell. Separating classes or schools by sex strikes several students as being just as bad as the racial segregation struck down in Brown. But affirmative action to promote diversity appears to pass muster.

“It’s important for people of different backgrounds and from all over to mix in school,” said student Paula Spruill. “That’s what this country is all about.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2001 edition of Education Week as Law Students Help Bring High Court To High Schools

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