On the first day of the Matthew H. Ornstein Debate Institute, I had to leave early to make it to a class I was attending at the Duke Summer Institute on Law and Policy. Amidst the goodbyes and see you tomorrows from my students, I heard one comment unlike the others.
"You can be my attorney when I'm falsely accused of a crime," a student said.
In that moment, I physically could not move any muscle of my body. I realized both the significance of my project and how pervasively corrupt the criminal justice system is today.
The following Thursday, I read a report on an investigation on the Ferguson police department. Contrary to its purpose of pursuing justice, the police department strived to generate revenue, leading it to aggressively implement the municipal code. This led to charges being stacked, not providing notice of a citation, an inability to be able to pay not being considered, using warrants to compel payment, and much worse. One of the findings of the report that struck me the most was evidence of racial profiling. When officers used visual assessments–rather than using radars or similar technology–a larger proportion of African Americans were targeted for crimes. And, a significant proportion of documented force by police officers was against African Americans.
Another reading we completed for the class focused on how pervasive these procedural and sentencing disparities are in police departments across the country. Whether someone experiences such discrimination in their community or does not, this exposure of a designed bastion of justice is hard to miss. This causes a lack of faith in institutions and causes even high schoolers to know that they are likely targets.
When the probability of discrimination is so high and the discrimination becomes institutionally harmful nationwide, it should not seem surprising that an African American boy would have that view. But, it was to me at the time.
Even after crafting files on race in the criminal justice system for the Cornerstone curriculum in D.C. public schools (found in the My Project page), it did not dawn on me the reality of those files. The student who made the comment could have realized racial disparities in the criminal justice system from readings outside of the Cornerstone curriculum. However, the fact that it could have been the curriculum I wrote and organized that could have sparked that realization makes me simultaneously lose my breath and also be content that the school system is being transparent about these systemic issues.
As a white woman from a private university, I knew firsthand that I was coming in as an outsider, someone who has not and probably will never experience the same discrimination as those I teach. I now realize that coming into teaching at the Matthew H. Ornstein Debate Institute–after completing the research on how engrained racial injustice is within the criminal justice system and now later participating in a class in which we discussed reforms certain states are undergoing to prevent and ameliorate their police departments being similar to Ferguson–I entered with the commonality of being aware of these injustices and genuinely wanting to teach others about them and work with others to design institutional reform.
More importantly, after learning the ins and outs of policy debate, these students also have the tools of advocacy and can remodel our justice system, too. We can only hope that one day no student should be able to conceptualize some sort of inevitability that they will be wrongfully convicted of a crime.
Through debate, these students can realize they can also participate in the democratic process. By entering the marketplace of ideas, they can engage in a system that encourages divergent ideas to compete and for the just to prevail.
You can read more about Stefanie's time with the WUDL on her website, here.