Teaching incarcerated youth, UChicago law students find new perspectives on legal system

Law School seminar expands debate on gun rights, free speech and other issues

During the third week of a virtual seminar, Prof. Emily Buss and 10 University of Chicago Law School students were teaching incarcerated teenagers about their constitutional rights, and the topic was divisive: the right to own and carry a gun. 

Each of the seminar’s 10 weeks would cover a different topic—including freedom of speech, reproductive rights, and cruel and unusual punishment—and each session would expand the views of both the Law School and high school students. 

But, for the soon-to-be-lawyers, Buss said, none was quite as eye-opening as the debate on gun rights.

“This is a group of law students who are big believers in gun control,” said Buss, the Mark and Barbara Fried Professor of Law and an expert on children’s and parents’ rights and the relationship between parent, child and state. “But they’re talking to kids who have grown up in very violent communities, so the youth felt strongly that everybody should have the right to carry a gun. The youth believe that having a gun is necessary for personal protection—that they are in great danger if they don't have one.”

In previous years, Buss had led Law School students in teaching teenagers from the University of Chicago Laboratory High School and Woodlawn Charter School. During those classes, they discussed and debated issues related to the rights of minors, including free speech in public schools, school searches and drug tests, disciplinary procedures and racial diversity in school placement. 

In the spring of 2021, for the first time, Buss created a new version of the class geared toward youth who were incarcerated.

During the seminar, about 10 high school students in the Illinois juvenile justice system worked closely with Law School students to learn about their constitutional rights through a curriculum shaped by their experiences and interests. To launch the class, Buss worked with her former student, Heidi Mueller, JD’07, who is the director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. The collaboration, Mueller hoped, would give the law students a glimpse of how the laws they discussed in class could adversely affect the most vulnerable people.

“I wanted them to be able to think more deeply, and in a more personal way, about the law and about the people who are impacted by these intellectual debates that we’re having,” Mueller said. “The reality is that law on paper is only as good as its implementation. And one of the things that the [law] students really learned was that all of these rights that are enshrined in the Constitution are routinely violated—especially in poor Black and brown communities.”

During that third week, when the high school students resisted arguments for gun control and elaborated on their need to protect themselves and their families, the law students gained a new and invaluable perspective, Buss said. 

“The law students were really shocked by this discussion,” Buss said. “It doesn’t mean they all suddenly changed their positions on gun control, but they realized it was more complicated than they had thought. For these kids, the world out there doesn’t protect them; there don’t seem to be adults protecting them, and police are not a source of support or protection either.”

Seeing a different side of the law

Initially, Buss had considered teaching another class with high school students from the Lab and Woodlawn Charter schools. But having a daughter in high school herself, Buss was wary of suggesting young people spend even more time on Zoom. She had also long been in touch with Mueller, her former student and research assistant, who was now leading the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ). Buss came up with the idea for the new seminar during one of their conversations.

“It was something I’ve always had an interest in doing—engaging in this kind of class with youth who are incarcerated—but it always seemed logistically difficult,” Buss said of the seminar, which she taught in tandem with the Law School class “Constitutional Law VII: Parent, Child and State.”

“Being able to do this class was sort of a way of making lemonade out of Zoom,” she added.

Buss and Mueller got to work enrolling high school students in IDJJ—whose ages ranged from 16 to 19—and law students. Because the class was virtual, students from different youth centers across IDJJ were able to participate. The students met once a week to cover a particular right, both as a large group and in smaller group discussions. Each law student was also paired with one high school student, and these pairs had one-on-one video calls every Saturday.

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.”

Fellow third-year Andrew Zeller also joined this class with a teaching background—right before starting law school, he worked for Purdue University to help start a network of polytechnic high schools. One of the biggest challenges in teaching youth who were incarcerated, he said, was navigating discussions about the ways in which the young students’ rights had been violated.

“We all have the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. We all have a right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure,” Zeller said. “But for the most part, none of us [law students] have ever experienced those things being violated.”

Working with the IDJJ students, he added, meant finding a balance between teaching the material and allowing time to listen to the teenagers’ stories and experiences.

“On the one hand, we want to provide value and we want to provide learning,” Zeller said. “There are things from an academic standpoint or even a practical standpoint about these rights that we want to communicate.

“But at the same time, we have to make space for and recognize the contributions of the students themselves—when they’re saying ‘This is what this is really like, this is what happens to me and my family in relation to search and seizure,’ or in relation to an aspect of their sentencing or punishment. One of the most valuable things for us was to let the students talk and just listen.”

—This is an excerpt from a story first published by the University of Chicago Law School. Visit the Law School website to read more about the seminar’s work with incarcerated young people.