Pitt Law works to expand the pipeline for underrepresented students to enter the legal profession. Read the full story here.
By Christine H. O’Toole. This article was originally published in the Fall 2012 issue of Pitt Law Magazine.
On a dark winter night, an African-American teenager walking alone is confronted by suspicious lawmen. He panics — and, in the wake of tragedy, a debate begins. Were his civil rights violated?
The legal case of Jordan Miles, a Pittsburgh honor student allegedly beaten by plainclothes police officers on January 10, 2010, has dominated local media for over two years. But for teenagers in two local high schools, Miles’ experience became a compelling real-life example in a program taught by Pitt Law students.
In first-year projects at Propel Braddock Hills and Propel Andrew Street in Homestead, two charter high schools, the Miles story became concrete evidence that individual rights matter. “The kids totally get it,” says Pitt Law professor Judi Teeter, who directs the project. “The case connects them to law in a way they couldn’t do otherwise. It made it relevant — and that’s what you need to teach high schoolers.”
You could say that Pitt Law’s Diversity Pipeline, a three-pronged effort founded last May to engage high school students on their constitutional rights, resolve conflict through mediation, and consider legal careers, lowers the bar. It’s designed to encourage teenagers’ interest in the subject, thereby bringing underrepresented groups into college, law school, and the profession.
According to Teeter, the representation of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans in the legal profession is extremely low, with members of those groups comprising only one in 25 lawyers. In Pittsburgh, diversity is a compelling problem. In 2007, only five percent of partners and 17 percent of associates nationwide were members of minority groups; in Pittsburgh those percentages were 1.49 and 8.7 percent, respectively.
Pitt Law’s current minority enrollment is now 23 percent, up five percent over the past five years. With its strategic focus on high schoolers, “our project focuses on the years when intervention may be especially critical and fruitful,” notes Teeter.
Pitt Law is one of only 19 law schools in the nation to adopt the Marshall- Brennan Constitutional Literary Project, founded in 1999 at American University. With support from the Alcoa Foundation and a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Pitt Law recruited six fellows who accepted the challenge of re-entering high school classrooms.
Amber Jackson, ‘12, was an enthusiastic participant. Along with Ashley Wood, ‘13, and Dwyer Arce, ‘12, she helped teach the yearlong class in Law and Justice at Propel Braddock Hills. Using curricular materials from the Marshall Brennan program, she added real-life cases to spark student curiosity. “We used issues like dealing with the police — rights in search and seizure, rights to free speech in and out of school, freedom of choice versus dress codes.” The students, she says, were “more engaged than I expected. There was some shyness, but once rapport was built, they shared personal stories. They brought up Jordan Miles before I could. They used the case and applied it — they were already engaged.”
Other law schools students engaged in Pipeline programs as well. A team of eight, directed by Teeter, coached the school’s first moot court competition, which saw two Braddock Hills finalists advance from Pittsburgh to compete in the national finals. Together they led an afterschool training session on peer mediation, teaching students to help their classmates solve conflicts peaceably. Both the moot competition and peer mediation are important parts of the Pipeline program, says Teeter.
“What we teach is problem solving and communication skills. That’s conflict resolution,” she notes. “Like lawyers, they talk to clients, negotiate with opposition, and communicate. Now the program’s in its second year, and we have a group of trained student mediators in schools. We’re actually seeing the program in action.”
For the Propel students, developing a relationship with the Pitt Law students had a twofold effect. Propel Braddock Hills principal Joe Oliphant says the experience helps them become leaders and problem solvers, and aspire to earn a college degree.
“After our kids went through mediation training, we actually put them in situations to resolve disputes,” he explains. “Say two students were pushing and shoving in hallway — if it involved a consequence, the student mediators would help the social worker. They would follow the script, emphasizing a win-win outcome. That skill set of conflict resolution is powerful, because part of growing up is solving problems.”
Oliphant adds that the on-campus component of the Pipeline program, bringing highschoolers to Pitt Law and Duquesne Law for a day, fits the charter school’s overall mission of grooming students for college. “At Future Lawyers Day, they loved the setting, just seeing the campus. Now a lot of them are saying they want to go to Pitt. We want to hear their goal.”