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Eighth-graders file into teacher Tommy Simmons' humanities class at Lilla G. Frederick Middle School in Dorchester. This year, they’re reading about the civil rights era. But on this day, they’re getting a different lesson — how to assert their civil rights.
It's part of a program in which local attorneys teach Boston public school students about the law — this year the focus is on individual rights — to empower them and to dispel myths about the legal system.
The students' instructors this day are attorneys Nate Koslof and Clark Freeman. Freeman starts off the session by asking the class about Miranda rights: "What is it that happens when a person is arrested?" The students pause, considering the question, before Koslof adds, "What might the police officers say?"
Then 14-year-old Jermida Horton raises her hand and answers, "Oh, 'You have the right to remain silent, anything you say or do can and will be used against you in the court of law.' "
Jermida can recite the words pretty well. Now she's learning what they mean.
"I’ve seen cop shows before," Jermida says. "I never knew it was a Miranda right, I just thought it was something that they had to say."
Like Jermida, many of the students' ideas about law come from TV crime shows they've seen. The lawyers are teaching them how to exercise their rights in the real world.
"If you stay silent, it will be better off because if you say anything, it will be used against you," 14-year-old Rasha Stone tells Freeman, explaining what he understands the rights to mean.
The students also have many questions, like: What happens if you get pulled over by police? Do you have to answer their questions?
"You have to answer certain identifying questions. So if they ask you your name and if they ask you to show an ID, then you have to comply with those requests," Koslof explains to the class. "But more substantive questions — 'Were you here?' 'Do you know this person?' — those more detailed questions, you can assert your right to remain silent at that point."
At this point, many of the students lean forward; some are skeptical. Do you really not have to answer police? The key issue here, the students learn, is: Are you in the custody of police? Simmons puts the question to his class, "What can you ask to determine whether or not you're in custody?" Once again, Jermida speaks up.
"You can ask if you’re under arrest? And ... may I leave?" she says.
Yes, Koslof says, you can ask if you're free to go.
"If the answer is no, then you're in custody, if the answer is yes, then you're not," Koslof says.
It's this type of interaction with the attorneys that many of the students find informative and useful.
"So, if we’re in that situation where we get stopped by a cop we know what to do, we know the rights that we have,” Brianna Pusey, 14, says.
Interactions between police and youth have received a lot of attention over the last couple of years, following a string of deadly police shootings and violent interactions between unarmed black youth and law enforcement. Those are high-profile incidents, but there are also everyday encounters with police.
Teacher Simmons says more than ever it’s important for students to understand the legal system and what their rights are.
“Their perception of the police and law enforcement is very negative and I think as a country, it’s pretty negative right now, and these attorneys came in and showed the kids that they can, when dealing with law enforcement, it doesn’t have to be combative, but it does have to be fair and just and now they know what fair and just is supposed to look like," Simmons says.
The attorneys also tell the students that there are times when it is in their best interest to speak with police. But Koslof says the students should always be aware that they have a choice.
"This isn’t just advice for guilty people," Koslof says. "It’s advice for innocent, guilty -- know your rights so you know how to navigate the system appropriately."
The class is part of a program run by the Boston Bar Association called "Law Day in the Schools." Carol Starkey, the organization's incoming president, says Miranda rights are critical to the justice system.
“There couldn't be any more significant principles than those of saying you don’t have to be forced to give evidence against yourself when you’re being accused of something," Starkey says.
Those principles were established 50 years ago this month by the Supreme Court in the landmark case Miranda v. Arizona. Starkey says half a century later, it's crucial to learn about those rights early.
"And that’s important for all citizens to understand, especially young adults and young kids as they’re coming into their adulthood and they’re starting to participate in society in many different ways, and we all know that they’re going to have experiences that are both fair and unfair,” Starkey says.
The law day classes were held over several weeks in schools across Boston, from high school to as young as second grade. Starkey led one of the elementary school sessions.
"I was a little concerned, you know," she says. "This is kind of a heady concept going in and teaching kids that age. But I will tell you, these children understand what it means not to be treated fairly. They understood what it meant to be accused of something they didn't do."
It’s important to note too that Massachusetts has additional protections for juveniles when it comes to Miranda rights. Under what’s known as the “interested adult" rule, those under 14 must have an adult with them when they’re questioned. And the law encourages those over 14 be given an opportunity to consult an adult before they’re considered to have waived their Miranda rights.
Back at the Lilla Frederick school, the class gave Jermida Horton a spark of civic engagement. At 14 she's already considering becoming a lawyer. The lesson made it clear to her how important it is to know the law. And that goes beyond her friends and classmates.
“I think it’s helpful because some kids our age are in trouble with the system so maybe it could help them depending on their situation," Jermida says. "And it’s just something good to know. It’s nothing negative. You could help your parent or whoever if they ever got pulled over and if you know something you could speak up because you know the rights.”
This story aired on June 20, 2016.
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