He is 17, an 11th grader who during all of his years of schooling found the smae symbols of academic failure stamped on his tests and report cards. he was arrested last summer for breakinginto a car and was fingerprinted and booked downtown.
But he got a break. It was his first offense and he accepted an alternative to jail. He was sentenced to a 12-week course on the law and juvenile justice. Since then, the youngster said, things have drastically improved.
"It was the first time in my life I made A's and B's," he said of his recent report card, crediting the change to the adage that educators, psychologists and common sense people have always maintained is a key to success: "I felt good about myself. Street Law put me in a positive state of mind."
Street Law, a tell-it-like-it-is course in most everything kids ever wanted to know about juvenile justice and the law, is working wonders for some youngsters involved in a pretrial diversion program for juvenile offenders in the District. The youthful first-time offenders, charged in juvenile court where confidentiality is assured, joke that they are "scared straight" with information, frankness, peer pressure and concern.
And D.C. officials, concerned with school violence, vandalism and juvenile crime, say they have found a popular program that can make average youths better citizens and prevent misguided teen-agers from straying further.
Street Law is a growing trend in education and juvenile justice nationwide that originated 11 years ago in the District's public schools. Today, it is taught as an elective in 14 D.C. high schools and in about 500 school systems nationwide. A dozen juvenile justice programs across the country are modeling Street Law projects after the District's 3-year-old Street Law Diversion program. A new study by the U.S. Department of Justice, to be released later this month, found that such law-related education programs can reduce juvenile delinquency. The report's findings are expected to help foster the national trend toward more law-related education for juveniles.
Besides learning about other aspects of law such as consumer rights, housing and family law, Street Law students learn how to stay out of trouble and find out what to do if they find themselves in it.
A 15-year-old ninth grader in the diversion program said he didn't know he could be arrested for riding in a car with friends and their stolen case of soda pop. "If I'd known what I know now, I would've walked," he said.
In some cases, like that of the 17-year-old arrested for breaking into a car, the Street Law experience is one that helps kids feel better about themselves by showing them that they fit into society.
Mary Curd, coordinator of the diversion program, explained how this works. "If a child feels some kind of empowerment--'I can do something about my plight'--then he is more ready to conform to what society expects," Curd said. "If he sees absolute doom--'Nothing I can do will change things'--the next logical step is 'Why should I try?' "
Curd said youths in the diversion program, who attend two-hour classes on Saturday mornings for 12 weeks, have a 15 percent rate of recidivism, or return involvement in crime, compared to a 40 percent rate for youths arrested for similar crimes who do not take part in the program.
Street Law is a popular course also among D.C. high school students, who say they like its practical, straightforward approach and the interschool competitions that will culminate April 20 at an All-Star Mock Trial at Georgetown University Law Center.
Both the diversion and the in-school programs are coordinated by the D.C. Street Law Project of Georgetown University Law Center in downtown Washington. Georgetown law students serve as Street Law instructors and receive academic credit in return. The programs are funded by the university and D.C. public schools.
At Coolidge High School, students like Don McClurkin, Johnnie Thomas and John Akers said they like Street Law because they are intrigued by the intricacies of the legal system and learned things they can use beyond the classroom.
Student Law classes involve field trips to courtrooms and corrections facilities, role playing in mock trials and frequent contact with judges, lawyers and police officers.
Some say this "bonding" with community leaders is a major part of the program's success. One youngster in the diversion program explained that although police often cruise his neighborhood, "The first time I talked to police it was, 'You're under arrest.' "
Street Law classes stress students' rights in schools and society as well as their responsibilities. That, Curd said, is another important key to reaching some youngsters. "Teen-agers don't respond to a list of responsibilities if they don't think they have rights."
The U.S. Department of Justice study, sponsored by its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, seems to back up the claim. The study, involving six communities across the country, including a small sample from the District, found that students who took Street Law classes were less likely to use violence to solve problems and were less dependent on others who engage in delinquent behavior, according to project codirector Mary Jane Turner. The study also found that Street Law students committed fewer delinquent acts than expected on the basis of their previous behavior, Turner said.
Police, justice workers and educators have long talked about the need for preventive programs but in the past little has been done on a wide-scale basis because of disagreement about just who is responsible.
The major delinquency prevention programs in the District are the 10 Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Clubs that involve 22,000 youths in football, basketball and baseball. "We use sports as an inducement," Police Lt. Frederick Fisher said. "Then we work on citizenship and character building."
The Street Law program is seen by many as a way to reach a wide cross section of youth. Robert Hilson, of the D.C. Superior Court's Social Services Division, said this is important because youths from all economic levels and every section of the city are involved in vandalism, shoplifting, drinking, cutting classes and using drugs. "We see them from Georgetown and Rock Creek Park as well as from Southeast and Anacostia," Hilson said.
The majority of the 3,437 youths arrested in the District last year were charged with serious property crimes such as burglary and robbery. Juvenile repeat offenders involved in serious crimes have not been given the chance to take part in Street Law programs, although Hilson said he hopes that will be the next step. In the meantime, justice officials, police and educators seem to have found a common ground for delinquency prevention that takes advantage of the resources of each.
The first Street Law program was started here in the early '70s by then-School Superintendent Vincent Reed and Jason Newman, then a part-time law professor at Georgetown. At the time, D.C. School Board members, with years of student protest still clear in their minds, feared that a program that taught law and student rights would add to campus unrest and help some youth circumvent the law.
The youth charged with grand larceny for breaking into the automobile agreed. "I could've beat that," he said recently, eager to show off his new knowledge of the law. Grand larceny assumes intent and the removal of property, he said, and he had not taken the car away when police arrested him. "That was breaking and entering," he argued.
"The more knowlegeable they are and more able to use it for their own benefit, then you can call it circumventing the law," Lt. Fisher said. "But I wouldn't. They are people and they have individual rights just like anybody else.
"We look at it as a preventive measure," Fisher continued. "If they know this is an offense, maybe they'll just skip it."
The youth agreed. "I've seen a lot of things that I could've done with the crowd. I told them to go ahead. I didn't want to know about it. I didn't want to have nothing to do with it," he said. "It's not hard to say no if you know you can get messed up early in life."