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Taking it to the Streets

RWU Law and the Street Law Initiative

Street Law, Inc.

Over 40 years of educating about law, democracy, and human rights

Taking it to the Streets

RWU Law is one of ten law schools nationwide participating in the Diversity Pipeline Initiative, a Street Law program funded by the Law School Admissions Council.

Echoing through the high-ceilinged corridors of Providence’s Hope High School, the voices of a dozen teenagers can be heard animatedly enacting a mock murder trial. 

The “prosecutor,” wearing baggy jeans and an oversized tee-shirt, is delivering a well-reasoned – if somewhat overdramatic – opening statement, pounding away repeatedly at his key arguments.

“Okay, okay, we get the point!” giggles one student juror.

“You watch too much TV,” deadpans another.

The students are having fun with their assignment – but the underlying discussion is serious and focused. And leading that discussion is Robert Humm ’08 (a 3L when this story was reported; now an associate with Adler Pollock & Sheehan in Providence).

“The jury is the real judge – that’s who you’re arguing to,” Humm reminds the students as the class proceeds. “This is your chance to give the jury your version of the facts, and you need to give them something to hold onto, something to get them thinking on your side of the case.”

The facts concern a fictional Hope High School basketball star who died of a drug overdose on the night of a big game.

A fellow student stands accused of selling him a prescription drug that caused rapid heartbeat leading to heart failure. The fact sheet is laced with twists and turns holding legal hurdles and opportunities for both sides.

Working in tandem with veteran Hope High School teacher Kevin Bartels, Humm provides the students with Rhode Island laws governing murder and controlled substances, describes the standard of “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” and divides the class into a prosecution team and a defense team. As he guides the students step-by-step through the criminal trial process, they bring a unique and compelling viewpoint to the case.

“I’ve played a lot of basketball,” one student muses. “And something’s amiss here…” He then describes his physical experience of warming up while playing; other students talk frankly about the drugs in question.

Empowerment Through Education

Bartels has been teaching his “Law in Contemporary Society” course to high-performing juniors and seniors at Hope for three years now, largely using a curriculum designed by Street Law, Inc.

Street Law, Inc. – established in 1972, when Georgetown University Law Center began sending students out to teach practical law courses in D.C. public schools – is an international nonprofit organization “dedicated to providing practical, participatory education about law, democracy, and human rights,” and empowering people “to transform democratic ideals into citizen action.”

The organization’s signature publication is the high-school textbook, Street Law: A Course in Practical Law, now in its [eighth edition]. It offers compelling case studies and clear, concise descriptions of criminal law, torts, consumer and housing law, family law and constitutional law. Topics include such discussions as: “What To Do If You Are Arrested,” “Actions to Take If Your Rights Are Violated,” “What Should Be Done About Racial Profiling?,” “Your Rights As a Consumer,” and “Why Is It Important To Write a Will?”

“It helps the kids to gain an understanding of the law from a better perspective than what they usually get,” Bartels added, noting that many of these students are growing up in neighborhoods where law and law enforcement are often seen as the enemy.

RWU Law initiated its Street Law program in 2002, in partnership with John Mattson, the law-related education coordinator for the State of Rhode Island.

“Street Law helps our law students translate what they are learning in the classroom to a lay audience in the community,” said Liz Tobin Tyler, director of public service and community partnerships at the Feinstein Institute. “High school students love having law students as teachers and really engage with Street Law’s interactive curriculum.”

Law students enjoy it too; at any given time, around 15 participate in the Street Law program. This year, Suzanne Harrington-Steppen, who also serves as project coordinator for the Pro Bono Collaborative, coordinates the program and is providing training to law students.

RWU Law professor Jon Shelburne also assists by giving students feedback on the mock-lessons they present before going into classrooms.

“I enjoy talking about trial work,” said Humm, who previously did an externship with the attorney general’s office as well working at a private law firm. “I also did a lot of student teaching in college; if I hadn’t gone to law school I probably would have become a teacher. So when I heard about the Street Law program it sounded like a fun way to get my public interest credit.”

“Rob’s really well prepared, right up there with the other Roger Williams Law students who’ve come before him,” Bartels said. “He’s very respectful of the students and he really listens to them, and they respect and listen to him in return.”

A ‘Pipeline Initiative’

In late 2006, the RWU Law was selected as one of just ten law schools nationwide to participate in the Diversity Pipeline Initiative, a Street Law program funded by the Law School Admissions Council. The initiative supports the law school in its efforts to incorporate activities and mentoring for young people of color, and encourage them to consider legal careers.

Such efforts are part of RWU Law’s ongoing strategy of recruiting future law students from a variety of backgrounds, according to Lorraine Lalli, assistant dean of students.

As part of the pipeline initiative, high school students who are involved with the Street Law program are invited to the School of Law for a half-day visit to learn about law school and what it takes to prepare for a legal career.

“Pipeline initiatives provide a way of reaching out to students as early as elementary or middle school,” Lalli explained.

Source: AMICUS: The Magazine of Roger Williams School of Law, Fall 2008 (Reproduced with permission)

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