Wake Forest law seminar educates high schoolers on constitutional rights

More than 350 students filled the auditorium at Parkland High School in Winston-Salem and listened intently on how to interact with police officers while still asserting their constitutional rights.

Wake Forest Law School’s Pro Bono Project held its “Know Your Rights” presentation at the end of the school day last Friday to discuss with students the best, and safest way, to interact with police while keeping their constitutional rights intact. The presentation, which is in its inaugural year, focuses on educating the community on various legal issues such as police encounters and re-entry rights.

Third-year law student Stephanie Jackson led the project and worked with six other students to come up with the presentation. She said that the project has become a much needed one with police encounters at the forefront of the national conversation, citing the New York Times story on disproportionate traffic stops on drivers of color in Greensboro.

“The purpose is to go into at-risk communities with people who are often disproportionately stopped by the police. That’s something that’s no longer refutable,” Jackson said. “What I’ve found is that it seems like people don’t know what their rights are in these situations. Obviously we’re not advocating that students be uncooperative with police or that people get away with anything. This is about the rights that people have living in this country that often times they don’t exercise.”

The presentation, which was supervised by Forsyth County District Judge Denise Hartsfield, discussed everything from traffic stops to an arrest. It touched on the three most common interactions with police officers: conversation, detention and arrest, while teaching students about their right to remain silent, to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, reasonable suspicion and what it covers, and what to do during these situations that will assist their lawyers in building a case for them.

The presentation was created by the law students through research and the assistance of the North Carolina Bar Association, local district attorneys and public offenders. Judge Hartsfield, who oversees the community efforts as an adjunct at the law school, said that it was an important project to take to the community based on her experience on the bench and in Teen Court.

“We wanted to go into the high schools with this because of all the press surrounding high schoolers and their encounters with police. I see too many kids in juvenile court who just don’t know what to do,” she said. “I hope these kids get a thirst to learn more about their constitutional rights, an idea of what they need to do when encountering the police and, most of all, I hope they pass it on to their friends so we can have a better relationship with law enforcement and not experience the tragedies of other cities.”

Jackson said presenting at the schools gives them a chance to empower and educate students on their legal rights within the constitution and North Carolina laws, something that’s already being studied in schools. On a personal level, it allows her to share with other students what she wished she could’ve shared with her younger brother, whom she noticed was stopped more often than she was.

“It comes from a personal place of ‘how can I help people so that they know things that I certainly wish I’d known when I started driving or when he was getting pulled over?’ Most people can’t drive without breaking some kind of law, even if it’s not using a turn signal or having a light out. It’s those routine traffic stops that often lead to a search or an arrest,” Jackson said.

The law students are hoping to continue to share this information with other high schools, churches, prisons and any one that will have them. Hartsfield said that students also volunteer through the law school’s expungement clinic, wills and estate clinic, Lawyer on the Line program, where students research and answer questions for Legal Aid, and the newly created educational surrogacy clinic, which helps kids in foster care who have IEPs and 504s get the maximum educational benefits.

Jackson’s group is slated to present the “Know Your Rights” presentation at two more high schools and have already presented to Wake Forest athletes, resident and housing assistants on campus and in some programs at the YMCA.

“It seems that there is a lot of mistrust, fear or uncertainty when going into police situations. I think often times the police are just trying to remain safe so this helps people think through potential situations, what you can and can’t do, what you should do and what the police are looking for in certain situations,” Jackson said. “Just understanding that maybe they’re (police) not out to get you, but this is what they can and can’t do, helps people release a lot of anxiety.”

To learn more about the “Know Your Rights” Pro Bono Project, visit. know-your-rights/. !

CHANEL DAVIS, a journalism graduate from N.C.A&T SU, is a freelance journalist based in High Point whose worked in the industry for the past five years.