Lessons on civics a sound investment in youth

Last week, eight Kauai Teen Court participants attended jury duty training. Almost every youth who attends Kauai Teen Court is required to be on a jury. A Kauai Teen Court jury is for the purpose of deciding the sanctions a youth will receive for the offense he or she committed.

The youth’s case is presented by senior participants in Kauai Teen Court who have been trained as either state attorney or defense attorney. After the case is heard, the jury retires to a different room to deliberate while another case is heard in the mock courtroom.

The first question asked in jury duty training is, “Who has heard of or knows what The Constitution of the United States of America is?” Of the eight participants, only one was able to answer that she had heard of it. The remaining seven participants, ranging in ages 12 to 17, had no ability to answer the question.

Not one child in eight knew why it was written, what it was for or its importance in American history. Sadly, this is not uncommon in Kauai Teen Court, however, usually more than one participant has at least heard of The Constitution of the United States of America.

After learning a bit about The U.S. Constitution, we move on to The Bill of Rights and discuss some of the amendments to it, particularly those amendments guaranteeing the right to a trial and jury. Some of the youth have heard of the First Amendment and almost all them have heard of the Second Amendment.

Other than these two amendments, however, the participants are not familiar with any of the other amendments to The U.S. Constitution. The abolition of slavery and a woman’s right to vote are believed by many Teen Court participants to have either occurred only just a couple of decades ago or hundreds of years ago.

Because most children learn about juries and courtroom procedures from television shows and movies, many are familiar with Miranda Rights but are unaware that as minors, they also apply to them. Discussions about rights during jury training reveal how differently a 12-year old may understand his Miranda Rights when in custody and what a 17-year old may understand.

Remaining silent is an option for children particularly if “juveniles make up a disproportionate number of those who falsely confess,” according to Stephen Drizen, legal director at Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Conviction.

It is an important notion to teach children to request a parent present and to remain silent. Lorelei Laird,in a 2016 American Bar Association Journal article wrote, “Research shows that juveniles waive their Miranda Rights at extremely high rates, with several studies putting it at roughly 90 percent. Yet it’s not clear that these kids understand what they’re giving up.”

According to the American Civil Liberties Union Legal director Steven Shapiro, “Increasingly, misbehavior that used to be treated as a school disciplinary problem is now treated as a law enforcement problem.” Hawai’i statistics bear this out: last year, approximately 7 out of 10 juvenile arrests were made at schools on Kauai.

Discussions about individual rights are always the most engaging discussions we have in Teen Court. It is an opportunity to instruct the children to investigate answers to their own questions and bring them back to the group.

From there we learn about courtroom protocols, the individual players in the courtroom and the jury’s responsibilities. When Kauai Teen Court is in session, different youths take on the roles of attorney, clerk, jury foreperson, bailiff and juror and they need to be familiar with these roles and their responsibilities.

Having just celebrated July 4th , I’m reminded at how important this information is to our young citizens. July 4th also reminded me of what my son told me before he went off to college, “I had four semesters of Hawaiian history at school, but never once American history.”

I’m delighted he knows so much Hawaiian history but disappointed that it appears it was at the expense of learning American history.

The study of civics in secondary education should be encouraged by parents and educators. Wikipedia defines civics as “the study of the theoretical, political and practical aspects of citizenship, as well as its rights and duties; the duties of citizens to each other as members of a political body and to the government.”

The Civics Proficiency Institute states that in 2014 “only 24 percent of U. S. high school students are proficient in civics, and studies by the Annenberg Foundation show that a third of U.S. citizens can’t name even one branch of our federal government.”

There are scores of websites on the internet that provide educational resources to teach civics in the classroom and in the home: lesson plans, games and videos. Some of these are the Center for Civic Education, American Civics Center, National Education Association and The Civics Proficiency Institute.

Whether students are not being taught this information or are not retaining it is a serious flaw in our education curriculum. If we wish to remain a free and democratic state it is essential to educate our youngest citizens in understanding freedom and democracy.

Children do not immediately recognize the relevance to daily life that civics education has and once they do, their interest increases and they find answers in discovering what frames their world and better ways in which to engage in their communities.

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Questions?

Hale Opio Kauai convened a support group of adults in our Kauai community to “step into the corner” for our teens, to answer questions and give support to youth and their families on a wide variety of issues. Please email your questions or concerns facing our youth and families today to Esther Solomon at esolomon@haleopio.org. For more information about Hale Opio Kauai, please go to www.haleopio.org

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