When students at Roosevelt High School were asked earlier this year which of their constitutional rights they would be willing to forfeit, no one was willing to surrender any.
As participants in the Street Law program taught by Georgetown University law students in 14 of the 16 D.C. public high schools, these students realized the value of their rights and how they are protected under the law.
The 17-year-old Street Law program is part of a nationwide effort called the National Institute for Citizen Education in the Law. The program offers a year-long course to encourage legal literacy among young people. These teen-agers, many of whom have no plans for law-related careers, study and discuss general legal problems that pertain to their daily lives, such as criminal, consumer, family, housing or individual rights laws.
Instructors foster the students' interest in the law by encouraging discussion about issues and the merits of arguments on either side of the issues. The focus of the course is not only on reading, but on using civics skills such as public speaking, critical thought and organization.
"The only way to have civic skills learned is to have them practiced," said Rick Roe, director of the D.C. Street Law program. "It teaches young people how to describe. In order to teach critical thinking they must be able to describe things." He added that the purpose of classroom discussions is to develop opinions based on fact.
A variety of law-related resources are used to enhance the newly learned concepts. Field trips to law firms and courtrooms bring the lessons to life, allowing the students to observe how law actually functions in society, and guest speakers, such as police officers and professional legal counselors, explain specific applications of the law.
"This course gets the students involved, bonds them to the schools and promotes sounder relationships," Roe explained. "It's exciting, participatory. It's not a game . . . it's designed to be meaningful."
At the end of each school year students test what they've learned when they act as lawyers and witnesses in mock trials. D.C. Superior Court judges preside over competitions in which teams of students play plaintiff and defendant and are graded according to merit and performance.
This year Judge Reggie Walton watched as teams from Ballou and Coolidge high schools faced off in the finals in a case concerning AIDS in the work place.
Students prepared for their roles with hours of studying and rehearsing opening and closing statements, examinations and cross examinations of witnesses. They also studyied courtroom etiquette and techniques, in addition to learning about acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Coolidge won the final case and represented the District in the national competition last month.
According to Charles Unkovic, the participating teacher/adviser for Roosevelt, the courses are the most popular elective in the school. "It is very informative for the student to know fundamentals of law," Unkovic said. "They should know what their constitutional rights are."
Unkovic said the program's growth is imminent. "They are ready to go into high gear. I would like to see it a requirement of D.C. public schools."
CAPTION:Students from Dix Street Academy and Coolidge High practice trial techniques at Georgetown University Law Center,