Friday, September 13, 2002
Lawyers, Judges Engage Students in Post-Sept. 11 Dialogue
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
About 150 lawyers and Los Angeles Superior Court judges returned to high School yesterday to help spark reflection and discussion among students about American values—and to help narrow the gulf between the justice system and the people on the verge of becoming its chief constituents.
“We’re not here to lecture,” Judge William Highberger told Cleveland High School’s advanced placement European history class. “The purpose is to let you talk to each other as much as to us.”
The Cleveland High humanities magnet was one of more than 20 schools from around the county that participated in the program, which was launched by the Los Angeles County Bar Association in cooperation with the court and the L.A. Unified School District.
Based on a similar program created by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and the American Bar Association that was offered in May, the County Bar scheduled the “Dialogue on Freedom” for Sept. 12, to come on the heels of the first anniversary of the deadly attacks on New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania.
County Bar President Miriam Krinsky said she wanted to give students a constructive way to grapple with the questions that all Americans have begun to ask after the attacks.
“It seemed to me that many lawyers and judges had that same kind of ‘What can I do?’ sense that many of us had after 9-11,” Krinsky told volunteers at a training session Sunday. “It also seemed that there would be an especially critical need when it came to somehow taking our young people and being able to have an opportunity to give them some sense of how we put this into perspective and how we take some of the positives from it in terms of thinking about our country.”
The “Dialogue” program will be followed by an essay contest—the same volunteer judges and lawyers who went to the classrooms are among those who will do the judging—and by a visit from Kennedy on Sept. 24 to Loyola Marymount University to conduct a dialogue with students from around Los Angeles.
Krinsky said she was hopeful when she put out a call for volunteers, but was pleasantly stunned at the volume of lawyers and judges who wanted to come to class to talk and to listen.
The enormous response from bench officers—more than 50—was due in part to a personal appeal from Presiding Judge James Bascue. Bascue has made community outreach and participation a top priority in his two years at the helm of the nation’s largest trial court.
Highberger said he thought it was important for students to see judges in a more personal situation.
“It’s always useful to try to give students—our future citizens, our future jurors—a comfortable way to have contact with the judicial system,” Highberger said. “The only experiences they have now with governmental authority may come if they are found with an open beer can or they get a ticket. It’s not necessarily the most positive experience.”
Sherman Oaks attorney/mediator Colleen McGurrin said it seemed to her that some civil liberties had been scaled back since last Sept. 11, and she wanted to “remind the kids that it’s very important to keep our liberties.”
Elayne Berg-Wilion, legal counsel for IHOP in Glendale, said she “just wanted to do something” in the aftermath of the attacks. With two children of her own, including one in high school, she said she was hoping for a lively discussion about values.
“We were watching television [after the attacks] and just not doing anything,” Berg-Wilion said. “I thought maybe there was something I could do with some meaning—for me.”
The centerpiece of the Dialogue program was a hypothetical nation called Quest, with third-world traditions and history and a host of questions about how best to go about forming a government. The leaders are asking what freedoms and principles to adopt from the U.S., and what to leave out.
Hollywood High School teacher Barbara Gordon warned that the answers might not be what American-born lawyers and judges expect.
“Our students come from hundreds of countries,” Gordon said. “They do not have the background of an American identity.”
She suggested that instead of asking students about amorphous concepts like the freedom of speech or separation of powers, they might want to talk about the power to search backpacks and lockers, or power to impose a dress code.
In Gordon’s class, intellectual property litigator Tehmina Jaffer of Latham & Watkins was joined by a judge and two other lawyers, and said she was impressed with the thinking the students obviously did.
“I enjoyed hearing what the students had to say,” Jaffer said. “It was very refreshing for me to hear that kind of perspective.”
At Cleveland High, McGurrin said the 10th and 11th grade English literature classes where she helped guide the discussions provided an eye-opening experience, especially given the perspectives of about two-thirds of them as immigrants from other nations.
“It seemed like they were thinking about these questions more than I expected,” McGurrin said. “One girl was from Iran, and she talked about being forced to learn a religion in school she didn’t believe in.”
But McGurrin said the biggest impression on her came from a boy from Vietnam. Like all students in the dialogue, he was asked to sum up in a word or phrase what it means to be American. His word—“lucky.”
“I thought, wow, that in and of itself spoke volumes,” McGurrin said.
Things were a little different in the AP history classroom where Highberger and attorney Harvey Rosen led the dialogues. Many of the students seemed uncharacteristically bashful, in the opinion of teacher Scott Cameron.
“A lot of them are very politically oriented,” Cameron said. “I warned them beforehand not to focus too much on that, and that might have shut them down a bit.”
Highberger asked the class about the most important rights they have and would recommend to the people of Quest. He was met with stony silence. Then a hand went up—and the student suggested, “the Bill of Rights.”
The class began to warm up. It became clear that they saw through the fictional “Quest”—they were talking about Afghanistan. They talked about Roe v. Wade. They talked about the Japanese American internment. They talked about security—and how much of it the nation can afford if the people want to keep their liberties.
“It’s great not to get taken over by another country, but you also want to retain your own freedoms,” one student said.
At the end of the hour, the one-phrase summaries of what it means to be American reflected a more complex feeling about the nation.
“Contradiction,” one said. The word was echoed by a classmate.
“Freedom to publicly disagree,” another said. “Freedom to be confused,” another offered.
One student said that “America doesn’t always know where it’s going, but it keeps going anyway.”
After the bell rang and the class ended, about two dozen students—including many who sat silently during the dialogue—approached Highberger and Rosen to ask questions on Iraq and the Middle East. There was less interest in separation of powers or the First Amendment.
Andrea Stover, a 17-year-old who lives in Sherman Oaks, did not speak during the program but said she thought it was worthwhile.
“A lot of people said things I was going to say,” she explaind.
She added that “it’s really important that there’s something optimistic on the board” among the words and phrases about America.
Bri Zika of Northridge, also 17, said she appreciated the fact that lawyers and judges came to the classroom.
“It shows that people outside the education system care,” she said. “That’s really important.”
The County Bar plans to assemble the words and phrases from all students who participated in the program and put them on its website, at .
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company