Two Propel charter schools offer constitutional law class

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Jennifer Saint-Preux, a third-year student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, positioned her phone in front of her face and told the Propel Braddock Hills high school students in the constitutional law class that she'd be recording their mock argument.

The two students standing at the front of the room shifted their feet nervously.

"You'll see how much better you guys are later in the semester," Ms. Saint-Preux said.

The charter school students were arguing an appeal of a hypothetical scenario: A woman was apprehended and accused of stealing from a shop.

Delasia Dutrieuille, 16, of Braddock, argued that the woman walked out of the store with the merchandise but didn't intend to steal it because she left her child inside the store.

"She would've walked out with the baby if she planned on stealing," she said.

Tyler Gabor, 16, of Turtle Creek, argued that exigent circumstances existed in the hypothetical theft because the woman left the store without paying.

In the next pair of students to argue the case, Rikki White, 15, of Turtle Creek, argued "every theft should be treated equally."

Ms. Saint-Preux praised Rikki for "sticking to her guns" and saying "a theft is a theft is a theft."

This argument was an early example of how the Propel students are learning about the law in the constitutional law class, which is taught by Pitt law students as part of the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project.

Propel is the only school in the area to host the Marshall-Brennan classes, but there are constitutional law classes taught at more than 25 high schools across the United States through the program.

Last year's constitutional law classes were the first at the Propel schools, and students were placed in the classes.

This year, 30 students enrolled in three elective classes held at two Propel high schools -- Braddock Hills and Anders Street in Munhall.

Steven George, a third-year student at Pitt's law school, said that the ultimate goal of the class is to teach students how to make arguments and prepare them for a national moot court competition.

Last year, five Propel students went to the Marshall-Brennan National Moot Court Competition in Washington, D.C., and three went on to the semi-finals.

But they also go over the amendments to the Constitution. When they discuss the First Amendment, they also explain to the students how it applies to juveniles, Mr. George said.

"You have these speech rights outside of school. What are your speech rights in school?" he said.

Once students start to understand the law, they start asking questions. Mr. George said a student was at the Waterfront shopping complex and noticed a police officer shining a light into cars. He said the students wondered whether it was legal for the police to do that, and Mr. George explained the Fourth Amendment, when police need a warrant to search a car and what falls under the "plain view exception."

The Pitt law students get credit for teaching the classes, and Mr. George said that while the students might forget the specifics of what they learn in the class, the confidence that comes from making arguments in front of lawyers, teachers and peers will stick with them.

"As a law student, it's probably the most unique and interesting thing I've done," he said.

Rikki and Tyler said they don't have an interest in becoming lawyers, but both said the skills they're learning in the class will be applicable no matter what they go into.

Rikki said she's interested in art, literature and science and hopes to someday get involved in environmental activism. As an activist, she said, knowing your rights is important, and the class is teaching her to do just that.

"The class will teach me how to have a voice," she said.

education - neigh_east

Annie Siebert: asiebert@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1613. Twitter: @AnnieSiebert.


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