The ABCs of Knowing Your Rights

Helping kids coexist with the police

In September 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Heyward Jr. was playing with an 18-inch-long plastic toy rifle in a game of cops and robbers with his friends at the Gowanus projects when a New York City housing cop turned the game into a tragedy: The cop, a youngster himself at only 23, was patrolling the projects that night on Baltic Street when he saw the kids running around on the roof and in the stairwells of their apartment complex. He mistook Nicholas's pop gun for a deadly weapon and killed the boy with one shot to the stomach.

Within five hours and just a few miles away, there was an unrelated but eerily similar shooting of another Brooklyn teenager: 16-year-old Jamiel Johnson, "armed" with a toy 9-millimeter handgun, was shot and wounded as he ran away from a police officer.

Some things never change. Most New York City schoolchildren today are too young to remember those shootings, but they're not too young to watch and read news about such incidents as last November's fatal shooting of Sean Bell in Queens, after which activists have once again accused the NYPD of brutality. Some teachers and civil-liberties activists figure that today's kids are not too young to learn about their rights and prepare for possible encounters with the police.

Teacher Molly Henderson with students (front to back) Delia Caceres, April Diaz, and 
Jonathan Rodriguez
Teacher Molly Henderson with students (front to back) Delia Caceres, April Diaz, and Jonathan Rodriguez

After all, the kids are going to be talking about it anyway, as Molly Henderson, a young sixth-grade science teacher at New Day Academy in the South Bronx, learned right after the November shooting in Queens.

"We were doing a conflict-resolution unit in advisory—that's like homeroom— and so we started out talking about what conflict is," Henderson recalls. "Sean Bell came up right away. They know exactly what's going on."

Henderson says she realized that this was a prime teaching moment at the Morrisania school and she wanted to do it right.

"The conversation was unfortunately devolving into an impassioned 'I hate cops' discussion instead of something more constructive," she recalls. "I tried to point out that not all the officers who fired at Sean Bell and his friends were white. But many of these kids have strong feelings about police officers, and one of them, even at age 12, was very vocal about white cops. I knew we had to talk about it, because there's nothing about police brutality or knowing your rights in the curriculum."

The New York City Department of Education acknowledges that, other than a civic citizenship and government social studies unit, there is no system-wide mandated curriculum to teach school- children their rights when it comes to dealing with law enforcement. Instead it's only addressed in the classroom teacher by teacher, school by school, if they elect to do so. Miss Molly, as her students call her, disagrees. She thinks "Know Your Rights" instruction must happen, and at a early age.

"I think it's really important," she says, "to have awareness, even in the sixth grade—to know the statistics, to have their feelings validated. So often these kids think it's their fault, and they're scared. Historically, they need to know why this happens, and keeps happening."

It's a bleak and gray December day in the South Bronx, but Miss Molly's students at New Day Academy are excited because it's the Friday before the holiday break—that means a field trip. A group of about 15 sixth-graders are headed to Manhattan to see The Pursuit of Happyness, the new Will Smith movie based on a memoir by a onetime homeless single father who becomes a stockbroker.

On the way to the train the girls skip arm in arm down the sidewalk, and the boys hang from and do pull-ups on every railing they pass under, swinging around poles, bumping into other pedestrians, and sneaking elbow jabs at one another. They crackle with pent-up energy, thrilled to be let loose in their city and not stuck in an overheated classroom for yet another day. Some of them stop at newsstands to gawk at racy magazine covers. But they also follow the news.

"When the guy died, and he got 50 shots, I read that," says 11-year-old Jonathan Rodriguez. "When that happens, it just makes me think, what if that happens to me when I get older?"

Delia Caceres, a petite and soft-spoken 14-year-old, says with a sigh, "The police don't seem like they're protecting us. I was walking with my brother, and I guess he looks like someone from the street. The police held him up in front of me. They threw him against the wall—really hard—and I was shaking. It turned out they had him confused with another guy."

Delia's friend April Diaz, 13, chimes in with one of the lessons she's already learned: "Even if you're a kid, you shouldn't put your hands in your pockets around the police." April says her parents taught her that.

Department of Education officials say that "good, creative teachers are going to get kids talking" about what's going on in the city and the world around them. "Current events are always topical. But we're very loath to dictate a mandate at the instructional level," a spokeswoman says.

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