Students in Cyrus Merrill’s grade 8 United States history class got a real-life example of how the constitution, the Bill of Rights, and especially the fourth amendment, applies to them.
It started with a police officer in early October. Rob Millard, a San Jose Police officer and Harker parent, came in to talk to the class about Fourth Amendment procedures and the Bill of Rights in practical reality.
“The police officer talked to us about many things I never would have thought I’d actually understand,” said Selin Ozcelik, a student in the class. “From appellate jurisdictions to catching criminals hiding under shadows for years, I started to really see what went on in our country. My dad turns on news radio channel every morning, and every word mentioned on that program seemed to be a more sophisticated language apart from the one I knew and spoke everyday. So, even the radio ended up making more sense.”
Later in the period, Millard asked Ozcelik if he could search her backpack. “I said yes, not sure where exactly he was going with that example. I later learned that without my approval, the police officer had no right although he had probable cause.”
The next visitors were two law students from Santa Clara University—Christopher Creech and Shikha Mittal ‘05—and they coincidentally also picked her backpack to search. “I confidently said no as the class around me laughed,” Ozcelik said.
Merrill says that Mittal—a student of his 11 years ago—mentioned that she and other law school students had an activity and community service goal of going out and teaching about the Constitution in the schools. She organized the speakers from among students at the law school.
This gave the students a chance to contrast “the police officer who spoke previously with the position of a lawyer discussing limitations on the police when arguing in court,” Merrill said.
Creech and Mittal were also able to help prepare the class for their final activity—a mock trial before a mock Supreme Court. For the first 10 minutes, they worked with the kids directly, brainstorming how to argue before the Supreme Court. Sahana Narayanan says this was her favorite part of their visit. “They gave us invaluable tips and pointers on our statements, and even explained to us how the judge would react in real life!” Then the law students got into hands-on examples.
They started by defining what the Fourth Amendment is—it guards against unreasonable search and seizure and requires a judicially sanctioned warrant that is supported by probable cause—and who and what it protects. It protects your person and your clothes, Creech said, “but why is it not illegal to just look you up and down?”
“Because then police officers would have to walk around with their eyes closed,” a student offered.
“Exactly!” Creech said. “It’d be ridiculous! That’s why it protects against unreasonable search.”
“Do people disagree about what’s unreasonable?” Merrill asked.
“All the time,” Creech said. “But if you can go before a judge and successfully argue what is and isn’t reasonable, then that becomes the law.”
Creech then took out a shoebox, which he gave to a student in the class. “Now let’s say I’m a policeman,” he said. “I’m looking for a stolen Ferrari, and I want to search your shoebox and see if it’s in there. Can I look in your shoebox?”
“Sure,” the student said, offering it back to him.
“But would it be reasonable?”
“No,” the student said. “But I said it was okay.”
“So now I can search it,” Creech said.
Finally, it was time for the students to become lawyers themselves. The law students came back to act as judges (along with Merrill), and Merrill’s class had researched, prepared, and were ready to present. “To think like a lawyer during the mock arguments was hard, but very fulfilling at the end,” said Narayanan. “I was defending a school that prohibited the wearing of armbands during the Vietnam War. This case (Tinker v. Des Moines) eventually lost in the Supreme Court! So I had to study arguments that would support my case as well as the cases that our opposing side would be using against us. That was the first step,” she said. “The second step was to actually tie those into the mindset of how people were thinking during the 1960’s. I had to make it relevant not to 2011, but to 1969 itself.”
Michael Zhao, another presenter in the mock trial, said, “The mock arguments allowed us students to truly grasp the idea and concept of how real arguments are presented in the Supreme Court.”
“Our debates combined all of the previous activities and made us analyze the information we received from each of the people who visited our classroom,” said Karen Tu, a student in Merrill’s class. “It was also hands-on and gave us a taste of what would happen in a ‘real-world’ scenario.”
It wasn’t just the material that the students learned—they also came away with a better understanding of why learning about the Fourth Amendment and about the Bill of Rights as a whole is important.
“As students, we often overlook the Bill of Rights as something that we need to learn for a test. Because of this, one often learns and forgets the material. By going through these interactive lessons however, I think that we will not only have a greater understanding of the concept, but also remember of the Fourth Amendment itself, as these lessons had a lasting impact on us,” Zhao said.
“We need to know what our rights are and what we or other people can or can’t do. By learning about them, we can protect ourselves and others with our knowledge,” Tu said.
Ozcelik added that, “understanding the base of our country helps students see where our modern society evolved from and the struggles it had to overcome to get here.”
Merrill said one of his goals in bringing in various speakers and organizing a mock argument was to give the students “the real feel that while the Constitution may not change, the interpretations of it might. Post 9/11, for instance, the courts have been much more permissive of invasions of privacy as the public and courts have moved towards prioritizing order and security over liberty and freedom.”
Narayanan said, “Ultimately, the whole act of listening to people of the law, whether they were police officers or lawyers, culminated to a very enriching learning experience that I will never forget!”