The 1970’s were a time when the American people were struggling for a balance between liberty and safety—unfortunately, a perennial problem that continues today. Were young people willing and prepared to take an informed and responsible role and work together in resolving the tension? Polls indicated that they were not and that the public had little confidence in the ability of the government do this either.
In February 1974 a small group of influential business, legal, and political leaders called together by James Brice, the Co-Chair of Arthur Andersen, listened to the Executive Director of the Constitutional Rights Foundation in Los Angeles describe “Youth and the Administration of Justice,” a program designed to help high school students understand their rights and responsibilities under the law and participate constructively in our society. The curriculum called for teachers, law-related professionals, law enforcement, business, community leaders, and the students themselves to work together toward that end.
The question before the group was how to start a similar program in Chicago. The Illinois Law Enforcement Commission had guaranteed a small start-up grant to pilot the program in a few schools in metropolitan Chicago. They were interested in supporting programs to prevent juvenile delinquency and were impressed by the underlying research on which “Youth and the Administration of Justice” was based. (This research was confirmed in the 1980s by the Office Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the 1980’s based on CRFC’s work in Chicago and North Carolina.)
The group formed an advisory board* to oversee the project, and the Constitutional Rights Foundation in Los Angeles hired me to run it based on the recommendation of the ABA’s Youth Education for Citizenship Committee. I recruited high school teachers who were teaching Law in American Society—an elective offered in all CPS high schools in the 1970’s—to participate in a summer institute exposing them to the curricula and providing them with ways to involve attorneys, law-enforcement, the courts, elected officials, business and their students. At the conclusion of the institute, ten schools were selected to participate in a pilot Youth and the Administration of Justice project here in Chicago.
The advisory board recruited resource people for the high school program. Teachers met monthly to get updates on the law, explore ways to teach about it, and discuss upcoming student workshops. Their students would chose a legal issue to explore, host a workshop at their school for teams from other schools, produce a newsletter featuring information about the issue, and teach others about the issue.
Our work in Chicago insured that when the Constitutional Rights Foundation in Los Angeles applied for and received a grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in 1977, we became a highly regarded consultant to the project—to help others create what we were in the process of creating.
Although our early funding came from the state and national government interested in preventing delinquency, CRFC provided quality law-related opportunities for all students, not just the ones that were seen as “at risk.” The research indicated that students not only were more knowledgeable about the law but were much more likely to indicate they would use the law to resolve conflicts after they had had a semester of law-related education.
It worked. CRFC trained the teachers, provided resource people for classrooms and field-experiences, and either developed or identified a rich set of resources.
Why did it work?
- Teachers were well-prepared—they knew the law and were skilled in a variety of teaching techniques (students learn in different ways).
- There was a course dedicated to teaching about law and government that was interactive and included the active engagement of outside resource persons such as attorneys, police-officers, and government officials either in the classroom or as part of a field experience.
- There was a rich set of resources (lessons, texts, supplemental material).
CRFC still does this and the need is still great. The American people continue to struggle to balance liberty and safety and have little confidence in our government. However, students (from widely diverse backgrounds) in CRFC programs are prepared to take an informed and responsible role and work together in resolving these tensions. Informed and engaged students who know their rights and responsibilities under the law are good for our democracy (and aren’t delinquent).
The primary purpose of public education was to prepare students for democratic life. Public education seems to have forgotten its primary mission. Thankfully, CRFC has not.
* CRFC Life Director Stephen Schiller was one of the first members of the advisory board.
Carolyn Pereira founded the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago in 1974 and served as executive director until 2010. She retired in 2011 and is now a Life Director.