Law governs our world - it should be taught to our kids. This country is experiencing a moment of innovation in childhood education. From charter schools to digital classrooms, Americans are questioning long-held ideas on public education. Along with new approaches to pedagogy and technology, there’s new space to discuss curriculum, and with it, the case for legal education as a required course for middle and high school students. Yes math, yes literature, and yes law.
PREP FOR THE “REAL WORLD”
The long stated goal of public education is preparing kids to be better citizens. Schools attempt this in two ways; by (a) instilling a core knowledge base and (b) providing the tools for future intellectual and professional growth - language, math, and in some schools, programming. What’s missing is legal training. It’s simply dangerous to pretend that understanding the law is intuitive. Just think of examples such as sharing or possession of digital images, songs, or video, or more serious legal issues like statuary rape, drug possession, or criminal conspiracy. Basic understanding of the law can help kids protect themselves and prevent many crimes from taking place, and should be well worth the investment.
KIDS DESERVE TO UNDERSTAND THEIR RIGHTS
Teaching teens about the law gives them much more than a bedrock of legal facts; it provides a tool for self-advocacy and a shield against abuse. Take racial or sex discrimination for example. Incidents of being “arrested while black” or being mistreated for being different are unlikely to disappear completely in the near future, so why not train students on how to respond intelligently while preserving their legal rights to combat such injustices. Deportations and immigration enforcements are increasing. Helping a kid learn some of the basic rules of immigration law not only increases awareness, but it can help her down a path to learn more - to seek help, and perhaps to secure status for herself or a family member. In such a way, teaching the basic language of the law can have a profound impact. There remains a place for lawyers as experts, but legal training can help young Americans to know how to stand up for their democratic liberties.
TEACHING LEGAL BASICS MAKES THE SYSTEM LESS TERRIFYING
A judge recently told me that one of her former clients referred to her experience with the courts as “being thrown out of an airplane.” For many, our criminal justice and administrative systems can feel cold and daunting. Early exposure to law in an educational setting (rather than a judicial proceeding) can alleviate the fear and mistrust some students feel toward the justice system. Offering legal education in the public schools can also provide a much needed opportunity for young Americans to make a positive connection with the legal officers in their communities - police, prosecutors, and judges. For example, having local law enforcement do occasional duty as visiting “law enforcement experts” would not only provide real world training for students, but it can foster positive interactions between students and police officers, something much needed particularly in predominantly black and Hispanic communities.
IGNORANCE OF THE LAW IS NO EXCUSE
Since all Americans are subject to the law, shouldn’t we all have some basic understanding of it - particularly since ignorance of the law does not offer an excuse from punishment? In our complex, modern world, we can no longer pretend that understanding our society’s rules is self-evident. Laws today are complex and require skills and understanding far beyond norms like “pay your taxes” and “don’t harm others.” So let’s be real – a society where only elites and their attorneys understand the law is not a real democracy. America’s laws govern our lives, and our kids deserve to be taught.