On Sept. 16, 2017, Kansas City Youth Court (KCYC) and UMKC School of Law hosted the event “Know Your Rights and Learn the Law” in honor of Constitution Day.  Youth between the ages of 12-19 and their parents or guardians were invited to hear members of the police force and local attorneys discuss how to safely interact with the police without unintentionally aggravating the situation. Recent history has led many to focus on the relationship between law enforcement practices, racial discrimination or bias and escalating harm to community members.   The KCYC wants to be a part of the solution to keeping kids safe through education and discourse.

The Kansas City Youth Court is a diversion program of the Jackson County Family Court, in collaboration with the Kansas City Police Department, for first time, low level juvenile offenders living in Kansas City.  The youth court receives funding from Jackson County COMBAT as a drug prevention program.  There is a long recognized connection between criminal conduct and the use of illegal drugs or alcohol.   Using a strategy of peer adjudication and mentoring, the KCYC trains high school students to serve (under adult supervision) as defense lawyers, prosecutors and judges.  Youth judges, after speaking with youth court defendants about the criminal infraction, help the young person to develop strategies for avoiding similar bad choices in the future.   The youth attorneys make recommendations for sentencing, but the final sentencing decision rests with the youth judges as it does in traditional juvenile courts.  This year, KCYC will debut a new initiative in which students in the School of Law’s mock trial program are paired up with youth court members. The youth court will also be involved with the law school’s annual “A Day in the Law” event in March.

The legal Director of KCYC, Professor Mary Kay O’Malley, believes “The maturity and insight demonstrated by the youth court attorneys is quite impressive.  Conversations with them reveal a strong sense of justice and a commitment to making a positive impact on their clients and the community.  Serving on the KCYC gives these teenagers an opportunity for leadership and civic engagement that they can carry forward into adulthood.”

At the event on September 16, UMKC School of Law professor Dan Weddle and attorney Will Toney spoke to approximately 80 parents, teenagers and youth court members about their rights, and the police representatives introduced the ordinances in Kansas City that affect the juvenile body and discussion topics ranged from freedom of expression at school to rules governing car searches by law enforcement. The event included some role-playing among the participants as well.

 “The main message of the event is that high school kids have rights just like adults do,” one of the organizers, Dakota Paris (J.D. ‘18), said, “even though there are some exceptions in the school setting.  We also wanted to bring the police and young people together.  Finally, we hoped to encourage our diverse audience of young people to consider careers in the legal profession or law enforcement.”   

“We need to work on repairing the relationship between the police and the community,” said Merrell Bennekin, executive director of the Office of Community Complaints for the Kansas City Police Department.

“Know Your Rights” was funded by a UMKC Diversion of Diversity and Inclusion grant, and the grant will also introduce other new initiatives this year.