Stay out of jail class

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Professor Rick Roe of Street Law Program
Professor Rick Roe of Street Law Program

I can’t say for sure that Richard L. Roe’s street law class in D.C. schools persuaded any students to avoid a life of crime.

But it makes sense to me if you help young people to understand that risk of getting caught or even killed in a shoot-out with a shop owner, you’re likely to make a difference.

Every week or so I’m reminded of Rick’s class at Georgetown University when I see the weekly newspaper column that features 15 or so photographs of people wanted by the police on various crime charges.

Mostly these young people have been charged with drug law violations or breaking and entering or criminal conversion or prostitution. I guess the paper wouldn’t just list “stupid” at the end of the charges.

That’s what often comes to mind for me as I glance at that column.

I got acquainted with Rick in 1992 when we lived in Washington, D.C. My wife Toni had an appointment at the National Science Foundation. I wrote my editorials for the Fort Wayne paper from our bureau in the National Press Building.

A law professor, Rick was married to one of the civil rights attorneys who filed a desegregation lawsuit against Fort Wayne Community Schools, a suit that was eventually settled out of court.

Besides teaching university law students, Rick visited D.C. high schools and taught what he called “Street Law.”

I spoke at his law classes one day. But I was most interested in his classes for younger students in the mostly black D.C. schools. I know that his mission went far beyond persuading these kids to stay out of trouble with the law.

That alone, though, surely was an a noble cause. D.C. jails have always been filled with young guys arrested on drug charges or breaking and entering, along with even more serious crimes. Over just a few years, those arrests add up to thousand of lives sidetracked and often wasted.

I always thought some kind of street law class might not only keep some young people on the straight and narrow. But it can help every student understand how the legal system works.

Such a course would include laws governing divorce and child protection. It would include bankruptcy, property rights and police powers. It would help students understand how the legal system works.

Sooner or later, people encounter such issues. What a benefit for students to have a real-world understanding of the law and the legal system! And before a person is involved in a crisis. Yet to my knowledge, few school districts offer a study of the law in the curriculum. Except for D.C., I know of none.

When I left the ministry in my early 20s, I taught high school for a few years. I even directed a couple of senior class plays. As any teacher of that age group would acknowledge, teen-agers can be terribly impulsive.

Wanting to be accepted, a few will join a friend or two to break into a vacant home or use money earned baby-sitting to buy illegal drugs. Who’s to know? How would I ever get arrested?

You can be sure that every one of those kids sitting in a juvenile detention center, jail or prison was confident he or she wouldn’t get arrested.

I have an idea how a full-blown course on street law could start. It could start when a government or sociology teacher invites a criminal attorney or police officer to talk with the class.

To be sure, school should be intellectually stimulating and broadening. School should introduce students to this extraordinarily complex world of people and ideas. But school can also help students fulfill their dreams without encroaching on the rights of others.

Call it street law. Call it stay out of jail 101. It belongs in the curriculum.

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