The ABCs of Knowing Your Rights


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.

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.

Enter groups like lawyer King Downing’s Campaign Against Racial Profiling (headquartered at the New York Civil Liberties Union) and the Know Your Rights workshops Downing teaches all over the city with the help of visiting college students from Cornell University’s Public Service Center. Retired cop DeLacy Davis and his Newark-based group, Black Cops Against Police Brutality, also conduct workshops. And so do the educational outreach coordinators of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement, an organization of black NYPD personnel.

Henderson, the New Day teacher, was a volunteer instructor during her years at Cornell for the Know Your Rights workshop with Downing, a lawyer who focuses on policing issues. Downing’s group visited middle schools, teen centers, and alternative high schools, where students have already had issues with the law. One public school in New Jersey requested a workshop for students as young as third grade.

“I’d be at a community meeting and a teacher, administrator, or parent would come up and ask me to come in and teach a workshop,” says Downing. “Mostly it’s grown by word of mouth.”

Under Downing, the college students worked together with high school volunteers to adapt materials from the ACLU and design a program that could be taught at different public schools and community centers.

There’s the usual PowerPoint presentation, but there’s also role-playing and a questionnaire. “Observing the role-plays gives people confidence in standing up to the police,” says Downing. “Given the constant situations that keep coming up, it makes it very real. And younger kids will bring up stories of what they’ve seen happening to older kids.”

Downing’s Campaign Against Racial Profiling was launched by the ACLU in 1999 after, he says, lawsuits in New Jersey and Maryland “began to show, statistically, that there really was a problem.”

Downing explains the pattern he’s seen in community after community: “Resentment builds up to a Sean Bell type of situation. And it’s really just powerlessness. So they have a right to get angry, but the police interpret it as escalation.”

Reaching the kids was Downing’s answer. “Public education was one of our priorities from the start,” he says. “Sixth-graders, especially the big sixth-graders, are already vulnerable to being watched [by the police]. People don’t know their rights, and nobody’s teaching them. We do it hands-on, with a focus on sharing experiences with the police. We go right down the Bill of Rights with the students.”

The workshop series happens each year for one week in March, during Cornell’s spring break.

“It’s one thing to come into a school for an annual workshop and get a snapshot,” says Henderson, who credits the experience of working in Downing’s program with encouraging her to go into teaching. “If Know Your Rights were part of the curriculum, if it’s their teacher, and you know the kids, you know what they need, where they are, hopefully a little bit about what their home lives are like. It can’t be done with just one workshop.”

Recently retired cop DeLacy Davis takes a more dramatic and controversial approach with his group, Black Cops Against Police Brutality. He too offers a how-to workshop of survival skills, with re-enactments and presentations. The children play the role of police officers, “to show them the hostility the police officers are subjected to,” says Davis.

He helps the kids analyze the personalities and posturing involved in so many police encounters that escalate into needless gunfire.

“When you have police officers who don’t get that sensitivity training, it creates a holier-than-thou mentality. And with young men there is ego, there is machismo,” explains Davis. “If you’re the citizen and you know you’re right, how do you ameliorate that feeling when you don’t want to back down to an abusive police officer? I teach them how to define the difference between a battle and a war: In a war, you risk it all. And we’re not going to risk it all.”

Davis doesn’t think the kids are too young to start learning.

“We’re simply saying to our community,” he says, “you will get hurt. So there are some behaviors we can avoid.”