Program Brings Constitutional Basics to High School Students

Posted September 17, 2008 at 10:07am

American University Washington College of Law professor Jamin Raskin believed too few high school students knew their constitutional rights, so with the help of fellow law professor Stephen Wermiel, Raskin founded the Marshall-Brennan Fellowship Program.

That was 10 years ago, and the fellowship is now offered at several law schools in the Northeast. The program, named after Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and William J. Brennan, uses second- and third-year American University and Howard University law students who specialize in constitutional law to teach high school students at about a dozen Washington schools about the Constitution. At the end of the year, the schools hold a moot court competition in front of federal judges who critique their constitutional knowledge while the students argue cases they had been studying. The students are taught about the Constitution through cases that relate to them in some way, like freedom of speech in high schools.

“The basic idea is that the Constitution is everybody’s birthright and it’s also necessary to have a real knowledge of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” Raskin explained. “We believe with a lot of justification that in general the schools are not doing a good job of teaching kids about the Constitution and how it works and what their rights are.”

Raskin was inspired to start the Marshall-Brennan Fellowship Program after he represented high school students who had been censored by their Montgomery County school from producing an episode of a school cable TV show that was about gay marriage. Raskin was able to get the school board to reverse the censorship.

“At that point, I started getting lots of calls from students saying, ‘Can you help us with this censorship or these searches or whatever,’ and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that,” he said. “But I did see that the schools which should be educating students about the Constitution are violating the Constitution in a lot of cases, and that’s what showed me that we really need a new initiative to bring the Bill of Rights and the Constitution into the public schools.”

Raskin talked to Wermiel, and the pair came up with the idea of sending law students to work with high school students. Both felt there was a dearth of constitutional knowledge among high school students.

“I think the schools are not teaching enough civics and enough American history and when they do, the law, the rights, the Constitution is the part the teachers understand the least, and it’s easier for them to teach about Congress than to rattle off how many presidents there have been,” Wermiel said. “They don’t understand the Supreme Court themselves. They don’t understand the meaning of the Bill of Rights, and so I think it’s a significant gap in curriculum in most places. Plus, to the extent that it’s covered in civics kinds of classes, I think the farther along you get in high school now, the less civics you get.”

Raskin said the lack of knowledge also has a lot to do with the teachers.

“Oftentimes people in authority are nervous about teaching students their rights,” he said.

Jill Hurley, a Marshall-Brennan fellow, said when she started teaching this year, the students knew bits and pieces of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights but not in a thorough way.

“It’s hard to gather what they know — they all say, ‘Oh I don’t know anything,’ but when you give them a worksheet asking what the president does, they actually do know,” Hurley said. “They all know pieces. Thinking back from when I was in high school, I may not have known this stuff.

The number of Marshall-Brennan fellows vary from year to year, but there are usually 40 to 60 of them from a pool of 150 applicants. Half of the fellows’ time with students is spent teaching the abstract ideas of the Constitution, and the other half is spent practicing for the moot court competition.

Fellows said the students are most interested in the material when it applies to them.

“It’s hard to tell which part they like,” Hurley said. “I think a lot of the times they do like learning about the cases when the cases have to do with something they’ve experienced.”

In addition to learning more about their constitutional rights, the students are also interested in the election, Marshall-Brennan fellow Adrienne Lawrence said.

“The election is something they really like to talk about in the class,” Lawrence said. “We get all these questions about what can happen when the police stop you and real-world experiences. They know people who get stopped by the police, and the Constitution says you have the right to remain silent and that’s not the reality. Sometimes the police are pushing them to talk.”

While the students benefit by learning about their constitutional rights and sharpening argumentative skills, the fellows said they do teach because of the sense of accomplishment they feel.

“I’ve done community service since before I could remember, and I just think it’s a great way to be a part of D.C.,” Lawrence said. “I wanted to make the law interesting for these kids.”