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June 1, 2007
Vol. 64
No. 9

Students as Citizens

How can a suburban school district teach students about their rights and responsibilities?

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Is an on-campus war protest a disciplinary infraction or a learning opportunity? Do students have the right to wear whatever they want to school? Does the right to a free press include student publications? Can educators protect students' rights while teaching them the responsibilities that come with those rights? How can schools prepare young people for the awesome responsibility of citizenship in a vibrant democracy?
As educators, we must recognize that all voices, including those of our students, are vital to democracy. In the Northport-East Northport Union Free School District (, a suburban district serving approximately 6,500 students on the North Shore of Long Island, New York, we have enjoyed great success in helping students develop and practice the citizenship skills they need. We are working with ASCD as one of the First Amendment Schools ( in a project to sustain a K–12 pathway supporting civic learning, especially as related to the First Amendment.
Our district's law-related education program uses student understanding of U.S. law, the U.S. legal system, and democratic institutions as the basis for developing students' citizenship skills. Each year, 500–600 of Northport High School's nearly 2,000 students take one of the school's six law-related classes. By graduation, most students will have taken at least one law class, but even those who do not take a class benefit from the seminars, ombudsman services, and other special programs.

From Moot Court to the CSI Challenge

  • Moot court, mock trial, model congress, debates, and other simulated hearings that engage students as active participants.
  • Class discussions of the U.S. Constitution, case law, and prior legal decisions as precedent.
  • The use of community resources, including guest speakers from local police departments and bar associations, field trips to jails and courthouses, and collaborative partnerships to support special enrichment activities.
To create authentic learning experiences for students, the district hosts a number of events with our community partners. For the past 33 years, Northport High School has partnered with the New York State Bar Association's Law, Youth, and Citizenship Program ( to host the New York State Civil Law Moot Court Competition. This year, approximately 200 students from 16 school districts came to Northport High School to compete in this full-day mock trial tournament and to interact with lawyers and judges who volunteer for the event.
For the past eight years, we have also worked with Forensics World (, the New York State Bar Association, the Suffolk County Police Academy, and Long Island University, CW Post Campus, to develop the CSI Challenge, a full-day murder mystery competition in which students use their knowledge of law, criminal procedure, science, and teamwork to solve a crime with a historical theme. This year, 78 teams representing 51 schools participated in the event, which required them to solve the murder of a notorious 1920s gangster. About 120 Northport-East Northport students in grades 5–12 assisted with registration and scoring, handled “search warrants,” acted as attorneys for various suspects, and portrayed dancers, musicians, and artists of the period.
The law program engages elementary and middle students in numerous special programs. For example, every 5th grader in our district (approximately 600 students) participated in a Law and Literacy program that connected a mock trial exercise to the reading program. These strategies enable students to develop literacy skills using an interdisciplinary approach to learning that is meaningful and effective.

Project PATCH

In 1969, a time when the youth voice was being raised loudly, a group of teachers started Northport High School's Law Studies program to help students to learn to exercise their rights responsibly. In 1975, the Board of Education worked with the community to put in place a K–12 program for all students in the community.
The mission of the district's program, now known as Project PATCH (Participatory Awareness Through Community Help;, is to support excellence in law and citizenship education by teaching students the knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed to thrive in a participatory democracy. Although many students from the program have gone on to careers in law-related fields, the purpose of the program is to empower all students with the knowledge and skills they require to be good citizens.
Current Project PATCH offerings include courses in criminal justice, American law, international law and human rights, American history through constitutional law, forensic science, and a peer leadership program called LEAD. Students in the 12th grade LEAD course conduct peer education programs with elementary and middle school students on such topics as voting, personal safety, tolerance, bullying, and the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The PATCH program also coordinates events for students and the broader community. At the high school level, these events include the annual Civil Law Moot Court Competition, the CSI Challenge, an International Law Forum, and a Peer Leadership Conference. These events provide public forums in which students can demonstrate what they have learned, practice leadership, perform community service, and directly interact with local professionals.
The benefits of such civic education extend far beyond preparation for a possible career in a law-related field. Students connect with the cases and controversies discussed, gain understanding of democratic principles, and find that their voices can make a difference. Their experiences help them build a sense of identity as Americans and foster a sense of empowerment as members of a democratic community. Exploring problems and conflicts through law-related education provides students with the skills and experiences to approach challenges constructively and make choices consistent with democratic ideals. Students learn about their rights, but also their responsibilities.
Since 1975, three key staffing positions have been allocated for the program. My role as coordinator is to manage the overall program. An additional K–8 coordinator focuses on the LEAD program and the elementary and middle school initiatives. An educational ombudsman at Northport High School extends the lessons of civic education beyond the classroom.

The Educational Ombudsman

A unique aspect of the PATCH program is the ombudsman, a Swedish term meaning “representative.” When the PATCH program was created, teachers realized that although it was meaningful to teach about rights and responsibilities in the classroom, those efforts would be limited if the entire school community did not attempt to live up to these ideals. The Office of the Educational Ombudsman was developed as a staffing assignment at Northport High School. The teacher in this position helps students and staff manage conflict, especially as related to students' rights and responsibilities.
At Northport High School, students enjoy a right to consult with the ombudsman. A student may come to the ombudsman with a complaint related to a peer-to-peer or student-to-teacher conflict or a concern about a pending administrative action (including disciplinary matters). The ombudsman will listen to the student fairly and impartially and, if necessary, speak with staff and other students. After reviewing this testimony, the ombudsman will discuss findings with the student, review the relevant school rules, and carefully guide the student through an exploration of the issue.
Frequently, the ombudsman will help a student with a matter that involves reviewing precedent in either school law or the New York State commissioners' decisions. Indeed, many school-based conflicts—including dress codes, student speech and publications, attendance policies, bullying, and harassment—have legal and policy implications; the ombudsman must be well versed in school law and have access to resources on school law and policy.
A particularly challenging free press case involved a student complaint about an article's exclusion from a schools literary magazine. The ombudsman worked with the student to explore school policy, court decisions, and commissioners' rulings. The district was concerned that the article was inappropriate for distribution at a community event where younger students would be present, but the student who made the complaint believed that the procedures related to the review of student publications had not been followed. In this particular case, the student prevailed and the article was published.
The students, staff, and administration at Northport High School view the ombudsman as an indispensable resource. For students, many of whom see the ombudsman as their lawyer, the ombudsman's office is a safe place where they know they can voice concerns to an impartial listener. On average, the ombudsman assists with approximately 250 cases per year. Frequently, the ombudsman will need to lead a student toward taking responsibility for a misguided choice. The process helps the student recognize his or her own accountability. Even if a student faces disciplinary consequences for an action, that student knows that the consequences were determined fairly, with respect for due process and the individual's rights.
At the high school level, conflicts related to the dress code are common, particularly around Halloween. During the annual Halloween Safety program that the high school hosts for primary level students, the older students are allowed to wear costumes to school. Every year, students are reminded of their responsibility to wear costumes that are safe and that will not scare young children. Inevitably though, a few students come to the ombudsman after being asked to remove an inappropriate costume. While students may not be thrilled that they need to change their clothing, a discussion with the ombudsman about appropriate dress, especially with younger guests present, usually convinces them to do the right thing.
When a group of Northport High School students gathered in the school commons to protest the war in Iraq, school staff began gathering names to ensure that the students were using their free period, not skipping class. Some refused to give their names, believing that the teachers were trying to silence their political speech. The ombudsman was able to help students understand that the school's interest was not in infringing upon or monitoring their political speech but in making sure that students who were supposed to be in class did attend. The students realized how their right to peaceful protest needed to be balanced with the educational mission of the school. What could have been viewed as simple insubordination became a valuable teaching and learning opportunity.

Realizing the Benefits

Northport High School has derived great benefit from the curricular and instructional aspects of the law-related education program, as well as the ombudsman. Students enjoy a high degree of opportunity and freedom at Northport High School, which is balanced by an expectation of responsible conduct. Students recognize their rights and responsibilities as citizens and the opportunities they have to make a difference. Northport High School students are actively engaged in community service, including helping homeless people, funding medical research, and assisting impoverished communities in Nicaragua. The culture of respect and responsibility that our school district has developed over several decades has resulted in a school community that can proudly proclaim that our students make a difference in our town and all over the world.

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