When Buss taught students from Lab and Woodlawn Charter, they focused primarily on school-based rights. For this class, she wanted to cover a broader range of rights of interest to adolescents, particularly adolescents who have been involved in the justice system. The students were interested in discussing criminal procedural rights, including protections against unreasonable searches and seizures and cruel and unusual punishment, but they were also very interested in reproductive and parental rights, voting rights, and speech rights.
Tresa D. Dunbar, the superintendent for IDJJ’s school district, also helped develop the curriculum and class structure. There was so much to be gained through a collaboration between the Law School and IDJJ, Dunbar said—it was a chance to expose the students in her district to people of different backgrounds, to teach them practical skills that would help their confidence grow, and even to offer a new perspective on the criminal justice system.
“One of the goals overall was to have them to see a different side of the authority of law and to give them practical information about how the law works, how it can be used responsibly, and how it should be used responsibly,” Dunbar said. “One of the things we did accomplish was to help them see that there are different sides to what is supposed to happen in the legal system.”
Buss knew that many law students would enroll in this class with an interest in supporting the underserved. She also hoped the class discussions would push them to think differently about the law and what it means to be a lawyer.
“One thing that many of [the law students] said to me is that they felt challenged beyond their wildest dreams,” Buss said. “[The class] really pushed them so far out of their comfort zones—in a good way. Some of them want to do criminal defense, some of them want to do some other kind of civil rights–related work. Having an opportunity to have their eyes opened in this way was really valuable.”
Balancing teaching and listening
At the outset, Mueller stressed how important it was that the law students show up, commit, and engage fully with the teenagers enrolled in the class.
“It was so important that [the law students] followed through for our IDJJ students, because they have been let down by so many people throughout their lives,” Mueller said. “And [the law students] all committed. They showed up every week on Tuesday for the class, and they showed up every Saturday to work with kids individually. I was really impressed by how they took that to heart.”
Angela Chang, who was a Teach for America Corps member before law school, enrolled in the seminar in part because she was excited to give the IDJJ students a classroom experience they might not normally be able to access. The different rights covered each week had varied significance for the high school students, she said. For instance, the student she worked with one-on-one was a father, and he was particularly interested in parenting and reproductive rights.
“He had big concerns knowing that he had been in the juvenile justice system and that he had been away from his kids for however long he was there,” said Chang, a third-year law student. “He was really interested in knowing what his rights were as a father, and whether he could get custody. He had strong opinions about that because it affected him really personally.”