Walking into the Josiah Quincy Elementary School in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood, a visitor is struck by the sheer amount of colors in the building. The hallways are awash in a bright and cheerful orange. Student drawings and elaborate crafts hang from the walls. Green plants line the window sill as a reminder of yesterday’s science lesson. There is no shortage of evidence that the Quincy School is an active and lively institution.
This week, the students and educators of the Quincy School and other Boston Public Schools opened their doors to BBA lawyer-volunteers for the Law Day in the Schools program. The program is a Boston Bar Foundation-funded public service initiative that began in 1986 – to introduce legal concepts and ideals to students. Guided by the theme, “No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom,” students participated in a mock trial designed to focus on due process and ensuring access to the justice system. With the assistance of volunteers, the students assumed the roles of the victim, the accused, law enforcement, prosecutor and defense counsel.
Beyond the Billable caught up with Emily F. Hodge, an associate with Choate Hall & Stewart and member of the BBA’s new Public Interest Leadership Program (class of 2012-2013) to find out what it was like. Emily shared her thoughts on the students, how the exercise engaged the class and why she donated her time to the program.
I arrived at the Josiah Quincy Elementary School for a Law Day class with Ms. Yang’s third grade class, and was escorted to the classroom by two bright and bubbly girls who had a lot of questions about being a lawyer. One said she wanted to be a lawyer when she grew up – and also a fashion designer and a dentist. When I arrived in the classroom there was a lot of activity and energy. We began our Law Day discussion talking about what a lawyer or attorney is, and what they do. Almost all of the students knew what a lawyer was, some knew a few lawyers personally, and a couple of the students were sure they wanted to become lawyers when they grow up. We talked about what “justice” means, and the students offered up the following adjectives: fair, equal, liberty. Every student was engaged and enthusiastic. I encouraged the students to think about why we have a justice system, and about the role that lawyers might play in that system. The students offered up great ideas and were clearly thinking hard about the justice system and the role of lawyers.
We turned to the fact pattern, and reviewed it together as a group. The students were buzzing with comments about whether Tomika really could have taken Maria’s book bag. Most students seemed to think Tomika was innocent, but others noted, “what about the fact that her locker was locked with the bag inside?” We split into groups, and everyone had a lot to say about their roles – some were excited, and others found it hard to think about the case from a point of view they didn’t agree with. Each of the groups had energetic discussions about what their arguments would be, and every one of the group representatives made compelling arguments. It was incredible to watch the students argue their positions – one, who played Tomika, adamantly asserted that Maria had accused her simply because her brother was in jail and the girls were no longer friends, which was “just not fair.” Another stepped up without any notes and delivered the position of the police officer in a clear and confident voice, asserting that the bag was found in Tomika’s locked locker, so it made sense to accuse her. Some students thought very creatively about the case and really worked to make the best arguments they could for their positions. The defendant and her counsel each decided that the true explanation for the theft of Maria’s backpack was that Katie, the accuser, had framed Tomika – that Katie had watched Tomika enter the combination to her locker and gone back later to put Maria’s bag inside!
Participating in Law Day was a great way to step outside the daily practice of law and take part in educating young students about the role that the law, justice and lawyers might play in their own lives. Each of the students seemed to think hard about what it might mean to participate in a case like this one, and how important it was to have a process and a system in place to ensure that every voice was heard. Listening to the students’ thoughts about justice and our legal system was fascinating, and it was rewarding and inspiring to see how energized the students were about vigorously defending each of their positions.
A Snapshot of the Boston Public Schools:
The BPS consists of 125 schools
57,000 students are enrolled in the BPS
78% of BPS students are eligible to receive free and reduced-priced meals in school
53% of students are eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
43% of students speak a language other than English as their first language
BPS students come from more than 110 countries and speak 77 different languages