After tragedies, students learn about their rights
The deaths of several black men and women around the country at the hands of police have not only revived old tensions between the authorities and community members. The tragedies have also raised concerns that young people need more awareness of their legal rights.
With this in mind, the Boston Bar Association recently set out to teach more than 1,500 students at 13 public schools across the city about their rights and police procedures.
It is particularly relevant right now that young people know they can refuse to be interrogated and can demand a lawyer, said Carol Starkey, the bar’s president-elect.
“In the wake of tragic deaths such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, or Eric Garner in Staten Island . . . [there] has been a great unrest throughout the country,” Starkey said. “And Boston responds as it always responds, through education, through discussion, through collaboration.”
Starkey, who worked for 13 years as a prosecutor, said she did not fully understand how little trust some communities have for police until she became a defense attorney 14 years ago.
The association’s education efforts — from Boston’s kindergarten classes through the high schools — are intended to improve relationships between police and the community, she said, and to overcome the distrust that can exist on both sides.
The recent lesson is part of the association’s Law Day in the Schools Program, which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary.
It is a banner year, too, for the legal protections against self-incrimination commonly called Miranda rights. The US Supreme Court ruled that Americans are guaranteed those protections 50 years ago in the landmark Miranda v. Arizona case.
On a recent morning at William J. Ostiguy High School in downtown Boston, students listened intently and asked pointed questions of visiting attorneys at the front of the crowded classroom.
“What happens if they arrest you, and they read you your rights, but you’re intoxicated or incoherent?” asked Sage, a girl in the front row. “Do they have to read it to you again once you’re sober?”
“That’s a good question,” replied lawyer Nate Koslof. “The court focuses on whether the person being questioned understands their rights, but does not always credit an argument that, ‘Oh, I was intoxicated, so I didn’t get it, so I didn’t actually waive it.’ ”
Though many young people might envision such a scenario, it may have hit closer to home for teenagers at Ostiguy High, where students are working to overcome addiction. Some have been arrested on drug-related crimes or had other interactions with police.
Children of all ages have seen film and television depictions of the Miranda warnings that police recite in an arrest — some of them accurate and others distorted, Starkey said.
“But most all of them miss the fundamental point,” she said. “These words really embody the fundamental rights that we all share as citizens in our criminal justice system — regardless of race, regardless of gender, or income, or sexual identity. It means that we’re all to be treated in a fair and equitable manner.”
Ostiguy student Sage, 18, whom the Globe is identifying only by first name because she is in recovery, said she learned a person being questioned by police should ask if they are free to go, and that police are not required to read the Miranda warning if the person is not in custody. “It’s all about what you’re legally allowed to do, and what they’re legally allowed — and not allowed — to do, which was interesting,” she said.
Megan, also 18, said she already knew some of her rights, but she learned that, when invoking the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination, it is safer to say out loud that you do not want to speak rather than just refusing to respond to questions.
She said the lesson gave her more confidence in asserting her rights, if the need arises.
Megan said she has not had any encounters with police, but she lives in a youth recovery home where some girls have been arrested and assigned to live there by the courts.
“I’ve been really lucky, actually, because I’ve obviously been driving around with drugs in the car,” she said.
The frame of reference can be very different for younger students, but the rights are just as relevant, Starkey said.
This spring, she presented a Miranda lesson to a second-grade class at Mozart Elementary School in Roslindale. Starkey said the students gave her a fresh perspective on the importance of the rights and left her feeling energized and optimistic.
“I was reminded that our children understand the concept of fairness,” she said. “They understand what it means to be accused of something they didn’t do. . . . They understand what it means not to be able to tell their side of the story when they get in trouble, and have it heard fairly.”