It was dinner time on a Monday evening and, as they finished eating, Jala Conley and her classmates were carefully considering the questions Professor Emily Buss had posed in their Juvenile Justice seminar at the Law School. The issues were particularly tough that night: Why are minority youth disproportionately arrested and incarcerated? What can society, schools, law enforcement, and the courts do to address "Disproportionate Minority Contact" with its devastating impact on youth of color?
“It’s a problem, and we haven’t figured out how to solve it,” Buss, the Mark and Barbara Fried Professor of Law, had told the class before they broke into small groups. She'd given them a smile as she announced their assignment for the remainder of class: “It’s up to you all — you have an hour.”
What followed was remarkable, though not because the students shared keen observations and made surprising connections — although they did — but because they were mostly between the ages of 15 and 18. The new class, a modified version of the seminar Buss teaches Law School students, was designed for a small group of University-affiliated high school pupils interested in delving into the complicated issues of youth justice. And so for eight weeks this winter, the teens — eight from the Laboratory High School and seven from the University of Chicago Woodlawn Charter School — studied law, engaged in frank discussion and analysis, and offered their unique perspectives on juvenile offenders, culpability, Disproportionate Minority Contact, crime prevention, and youth interactions with police. Eight law students, all 2Ls and 3Ls enrolled in Buss’s Law School seminar, served as teaching assistants — an experience that introduced them to new views on youth justice and led to unexpected mentoring relationships.
“There is a freshness about how the young people approach things, what they’re willing to say,” Buss said. “They are full of ideas, they are full of enthusiasm, and when they’re excited about something, the sky is the limit.”
As Conley’s group grappled with questions of racial bias and school discipline, they were passionate and pensive and often delivered what seemed to be deeply personal commentary.
“I just feel like the schools with students of color have tough rules because they know that’s how the real world is going to treat us,” Conley, a senior at Woodlawn, told her classmates. “I don’t think they always go about it the right way, but they’re letting us know now that that’s how the world is going to handle us, and this way, we can learn to react.”
After a few minutes of discussion, law student Keiko Rose, '15, threw out a question: “How do we change the real world then? Is it top down, such as the legislators enacting laws, or is at the ground level, such as working on everyday interactions between people?”
Conley answered quickly. “It’s the everyday interaction,” she said. “Police don’t know how to treat students of color. So people have to engage and make connections, otherwise everyone’s just basing things on assumptions. You can’t assume just because someone is of color that they’re up to no good. You have to go in without seeing color, I guess.”
Maybe then, Rose ventured, there’s a place for programs designed to foster positive interaction between minority teenagers and police?
Conley considered it for a moment then shook her head. “For teenagers, no, that’s not going to work at all because we already have our minds set up about the police,” she said. “But if you started with smaller children, maybe it would work. It would make the kids’ minds clearer, and make the adults’ minds clear, too, because these are still just children.”
Later, as Buss reflected on the exchange, she noted that what made the discussions especially interesting, for the students and for her, was that for every student viewpoint, there was a counterview. “The students learned about developing an argument and also showed an intelligent openness to persuasive counterarguments,” Buss said. “And I got the valuable reminder that there is no more a single youth view than there is a single adult view on these issues.”
The idea to offer the Juvenile Justice seminar to high school students grew out of Buss’s scholarly interest in how young people’s experiences with, and observations of, law enforcement impact their social identity development.
“Adolescents are in the process of crossing over into adulthood, and in this sense they challenge the law’s age-based categories,” Buss said. “They aren’t children. They aren’t adults. They’re in a transitional phase, and while much of the law is designed to try to help children, the law is not well designed to help adolescents to grow out of childhood. We’re better at drawing lines and having two sets of rules than figuring out how to get young people from here to there.”
So part of it was wanting to hear from young people, and wanting some of her law students to hear from them, too. But Buss, who has strong ties to Lab as a parent and a former board member, also wanted to foster interaction among students from Lab, a private school that is more than half Caucasian, and Woodlawn, a public charter school that is nearly 98 percent African-American and operated by the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute. What she didn’t know at the beginning was how the relationships and discussions would unfold among the participants.
The high school and Law School versions of the seminar met in back-to-back, two-hour blocks and covered roughly the same topics, though the law students had more reading and delved deeper into legal issues. In the high school class, law students spent a chunk of each session leading small groups in working through tough questions: Why do young people commit crimes? How should society respond, and who should be held responsible? What rights do young people have, and is the criminal justice process fair? How do teens differ from adults, and how should that affect how juvenile offenders are treated? When Buss was in the front of the room, she “cool called” the high school students, encouraging them to participate and share.
“Juvenile justice isn’t a topic that is discussed much in my other classes,” said Elizabeth Chon, a junior at Lab who volunteers at a youth crisis hotline and hoped to bring a new layer of thinking to that work. “I hear a lot about juvenile justice issues in my volunteer job, but it’s not something I ever understood deeply. Before this, I was unaware of a lot of the issues and flaws in the juvenile justice system — I feel like a lot of the decisions that are made are arbitrary, and there isn’t as much control over the system as I thought there was.”
For the law students, several of whom were drawn to the opportunity because they have worked as teachers or hope to focus on juvenile justice issues as lawyers, the class offered a peek into how teens think, interpret, and process information about the law.
“This is an amazing age to be able to learn from,” said Aasiya Glover, ’15. “I wanted to get their perspective on juvenile justice because they are in the middle of a major maturity shift. They are old enough to get what’s going on in the world, and they’re trying to figure out their place in it. They’re seeing their futures as adults but also thinking about what it means to be a young person and still be subject to all of these rules and restraints.”
Glover enjoyed seeing the teens experience sudden breakthroughs in understanding as they connected the dots between different topics. One student, following a discussion on Miranda rights, sent her a text message saying he thought the discussion had “gotten to the heart of the problems of the twenty-first century.”
“He was so self-aware, and he found himself identifying with this particular issue in juvenile justice,” she said. “It got him so excited, and he related it to larger systemic issues. It wasn’t an issue about him, or about Chicago — it was a larger issue: how do young people navigate interacting with the police? What are they bringing to that situation? How do you protect yourself? He really took these questions to heart.”
As the weeks passed, moments like this continued to unfold, and something else — something even less tangible — began to emerge. Many of those involved felt sure it had something to do with the broadening sense of community, the subtle shifts in understanding, and the friendships that had begun to take shape. There were sparks of recognition even when experiences differed, or moments when one student “got” what another student was saying. For some, there was a growing sense that these interactions mattered far beyond the classroom.
“The kids from the two schools seemed to enjoy working with each other so much, and we enjoyed working with them, too, and that’s all really encouraging,” said Jamie Schulte, ’15. “So much of our juvenile justice system is socio-economically driven, and I think we saw that this idea of collaboration among different populations is something that could be helpful.”
Schulte, who worked for two years as a sixth-grade English teacher in Houston, said the two groups talked candidly about differences but also found common ground. “It’s been interesting to see how different some of their experiences are, but how similar their ideas are,” she said.
Added Shelton Meyers, a sophomore at Woodlawn: “It was an amazing pleasure to interact with the Lab students and law students. Many of the kids in that seminar were outstandingly different, and had very vigorous imaginations that could come together to create possible solutions on how we could better our community. Those aren't really the types of thought processes that I'm around in my school, so it was really refreshing to hear from other students that think and observe the way I do.”
Some law students were surprised to find themselves identifying with the high school students they mentored or developing bonds as they swapped texts after class. This was the case for Ethel Amponsah, ’16, who was assigned as the teaching assistant to two female Woodlawn students.
“I see a younger version of myself within them when they are discussing their opinions about issues, which is something I hadn’t given much thought to before we started,” she said. “All of them come to the conversation drawing from their personal experiences. That’s what makes it such a rich class.”
Amponsah regularly exchanges text messages with the two students and has met them for brunch, where they talk about school issues, college, and the future. The students have taught her things, too.
“I’ve learned patience, and I’ve learned that I probably underestimate the abilities of young people,” she said. “They have far exceeded my expectations. I don’t know if it’s just that I don’t remember what it’s like to be 17, but I am always blown away by what they’re thinking and what they can do. And I’ve learned that I have something to offer them.”
It has added depth to her understanding of the juvenile justice issues she explores in the Law School class, too.
“It definitely reframes everything,” she said. “There was a time when I made a comment in the law class, and then three hours later, one of the high school students made the same comment, but in her teenage way. Hearing how she framed it, and what she drew from it, put the issue in context.”
Sometimes, the teens’ perspective reflected their unique spot at the intersection of childhood and adulthood.
“Some of the students strongly rejected the Supreme Court’s recent analysis concluding that adolescents should be considered less blameworthy for their crimes based on their age. This resistance makes sense because, more than anything, they want to be and be treated like adults,” Buss said. “But, in another exercise where they were asked to use a pie chart to divide a budget among various sorts of programming in response to juvenile crime, a lot of them were drawn to programs that focused on avoiding youth incarceration. In this exercise, it wasn’t irrelevant that they were talking about young people — they were heavily influenced by the social science that suggests that incarcerating young people just turns them into criminals. But when it came to thinking about a judge saying, ‘These are the things that are different about teenagers,’ some of them resisted.”
For Buss, the takeaways evolved along with the personal dynamics of the participants.
“It was hugely rewarding to create, alongside eight talented and committed law students, a new intellectual community for this group of high school students. I think the creation of this community had tremendous value for both groups of high school students, for the law students, for all of us. We were all playing out the University of Chicago ideal: engaging with one another about ideas, and testing our own and others’ ideas in a very positive and supportive context. Sharing our intellectual culture with young people felt incredibly important.”