Street Law: It’s about the law and legal system

Street Lawyers from left, Thomas Alberts, Sara Repanich, and Simone Smith. Photo: T.J. Lievonen/University of Miami

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Street Lawyers from left, Thomas Alberts, Sara Repanich, and Simone Smith. Photo: T.J. Lievonen/University of Miami

Street Law: It’s about the law and legal system

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Through an innovative program, Miami Law students are empowering local high schoolers to think like lawyers.

The law instructor in the small class of about 20 students didn’t approach the topic delicately, but went full bore into the issue, asking the future attorneys who sat before her a question that challenged their legal knowledge. 

“Put on your lawyer caps,” said Sara Repanich. “Would the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case been different had the trial been held in a predominately black community like Carol City?” 

First a pause, and then the answers came swiftly. 

“I think so,” said one student. 

“Definitely,” said another. “I would have picked jurors who lived in Carol City.” 

Repanich, as she often does in class, was using a real-world example to teach a lesson—this one on the jury selection process in criminal cases. Partnering with two other instructors, she explained that litigators representing both sides of a case question potential jurors to decide whether they would be fair—a procedure called voir dire—and that lawyers can use peremptory challenges to dismiss would-be jurors without offering an explanation. 

The class discussed many other topics that day, from reforming the juvenile justice system and whether prisons are doing an effective job of rehabilitating inmates to the difference between first- and second-degree murder and what constitutes manslaughter. 

This was not a course at a university school of law, but a class being taught to high school students as part of the Miami Street Law program. Once a week, teams of three to four University of Miami Law School students like Repanich walk into high school classrooms across Miami-Dade County to teach the practical aspects of law and the legal system to secondary school youngsters. 

“We’ve really decided to go in there and cater to what the high schools students want to learn about,” said Street Law program director and law school lecturer Jessi Tamayo. And often, she said, that means discussing highly charged issues such as the state’s stand your ground statute and the Trayvon Martin incident, in which a neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted in the fatal shooting of the unarmed African-American teenager in Sanford, Florida. 

After the Parkland shooting that left 17 dead, all of Tamayo’s students talked about the tragedy at their respective Street Law schools, discussing not only the incident but also the controversial issue of gun reform. 

Sometimes, class sessions address life skills. “How do I get a cell phone contract? What does it mean to sign a lease? How do I fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form?” said Tamayo, giving examples of some of the questions high schoolers ask her students. 

A native Miamian who used to run the ethics program at Fordham Law, Tamayo took over Street Law in 2012, expanding it from two to 13 high schools, many of them located in inner-city communities. 

“My priority was to get the program into schools that didn’t have a lot of people knocking on their doors,” explained Tamayo. So she did just that—knocked on doors, often showing up at high schools without an appointment and requesting to meet with the principal or a top administrator. At first, many were skeptical of her motives. “They weren’t used to somebody coming in and saying there’s literally no catch,” said Tamayo. “I told them, ‘Just let my students come once a week, take over one of your classes, and teach your kids whatever it is they want to learn about law.’ ” 

Her strategy worked, as Street Law has entered more and more high schools each year Tamayo has led the program. 

It is modeled after the global Street Law program that began in 1972, when a small group of students from Georgetown University Law Center developed an experimental curriculum to teach District of Columbia high school students about law and the legal system. Those Washington, D.C. high schoolers called the practical nature of the lessons Street Law, and the name stuck. 

At UM’s School of Law, Street Law is a two-credit course for students. Known as Street Lawyers, they teach a weekly or biweekly law class at a local secondary school, serving as role models to high school students. 

More than 15,000 high schoolers have participated in the program since it began at UM in 2001. Among the high schools where Street Lawyers now teach: Booker T. Washington, Braddock, Coral Gables, Central, Edison, Miami High, and Carol City, where Street Lawyers Repanich, Thomas Alberts, Jennifer Gonzalez, and Simone Smith have taught lessons on self-defense and sexting laws and discussed issues ranging from police interaction, First Amendment rights and Colin Kaepernick’s right to kneel, and Florida’s troubled juvenile justice system. 

“The juvenile justice system states that its goal is to rehabilitate. Do you think that’s true, and if not, how can the system be changed?” Repanich asked the class of Carol City students during one class session. 

“Vote if you’re old enough. Do your research and find out who’s for reforming juvenile justice,” one student responded. 

For the Carol City kids, Miami Street Law augments the legal education they already receive as part of the school’s law magnet program. “Our kids are resilient and often underestimated. They’re very bright and very capable,” said Asiah Wolfolk-Manning, the law magnet program coordinator at Carol City.

She called Street Law “an invaluable community partner” that reinforces the lessons on criminal, civil, and constitutional law she teaches in the classroom.

Repanich, who coached high school football at inner-city schools in California before coming to Miami Law, said Street Law is helping to increase diversity in the legal profession. Just ask third-year UM law student Dominique Paul. A Haitian-American whose fraternal grandfather was a lawyer in Haiti and was murdered there for refusing to accept a bribe, Paul participated in Street Law when she was a high school student at Miami High. 

“Street Law showed me that I could be a lawyer, that I could think like a lawyer,” said Paul, who gave up her high school spring breaks during her junior and senior years to participate in Street Law mock trials. 

She graduated from Miami High in 2009, going on to earn her undergraduate degree from UM. When she enrolled at Miami Law, she signed up to become a Street Lawyer, teaching students at Central High School. 

“I had a burning passion to participate in Street Law because of the impact it had on me as a high school student,” said Paul, who is currently interning at the juvenile court in downtown Miami. “I felt obligated to give that type of experience back to students who live in a community where there aren’t many lawyers, and to show them that there are people who look like them and have gone on to become lawyers.”