What would you say to a police officer if they asked to search you right now?

On this episode of It's (Probably) Not Rocket Science, host Carly Bowling explores the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project, a national project that teaches students from underserved high schools about their constitutional rights and introduces them to law careers.

High school students like junior Areli Garcia have worked hard to learn how different amendments and Supreme Court cases inform their rights as students during their time in UNM’s chapter of the Marshall-Brennan Project. She and several other students in the group will travel to Washington, D.C., to compete in the national Marshall-Brennan Moot Court Competition in early April.

"I would say I'm sorry, officer, but I do not consent to any searches,” Garcia said. “At school, an officer or a government authority would have to have at least reasonable suspicion. If they do not, that search will be unconstitutional. They will also need to specify where and what they're going to be searching,” she continued, describing how a government authority can conduct a search without consent.

Law students who serve as Marshall-Brennan Fellows help the high schoolers use historical information to develop arguments in a hypothetical case. UNM Marshall-Brennan Faculty Director and Professor Maryam Ahranjani described the project’s twofold goal.

“One is to train and teach high school students about what the Constitution says with regard to their own rights as students. The second is to really encourage them to think about going to law school themselves one day and to empower them with some of the skills to feel confident and successful in that journey,” Ahranjani said.

The Brennan team focuses on teaching in schools where students are underserved and don’t have many opportunities to interact with law students, lawyers, and law enforcement officers in a positive context. These schools are majority populated by students who are low-income and from marginalized communities, including students of color and students with disabilities.

“We know that those students are unlikely to really learn about the system in the way that it should work. We want to give them the tools and the knowledge to feel confident, to vindicate those rights when the time comes,” said Ahranjani,

“[The program] forces students to be critical thinkers and to think on their feet and respond in ways that demonstrate confidence and humility and precision. It's a great opportunity for them to build confidence.”

The program also helps law students to give back to the community and consider careers in education law. 

"My subversive goal is that some of them will want to be education lawyers,” she went on. “I believe that they can play a critical role in elevating opportunities for students and trying to hold the rest of us adults accountable to high standards.”

Quentin Gaul, a second-year law student and Marshall-Brennan Fellow, explained how the program helped some students gain more confidence in their rights.

“I think some students are coming from a place of fear and lack of knowledge around what their rights are, what the government is allowed to do to them, what police officers are allowed to do to them. This program gives students tools to have a more nuanced understanding,” said Gaul.

It has also helped provide students with a deeper understanding of how the law protects their rights.

"Many of our judges are so impressed with our students and tell them, ‘I thought you were a first-year attorney. I would have never guessed that you were a high school student arguing before me today,” Ahranjani said.

Students involved in the Marshall-Brennan project demonstrate skills that are relevant to law school and practicing law. The experience has helped many high schoolers further consider the career they'd like to pursue.

“I think this program has been wildly successful from its inception because of the natural fit between law students who are idealistic and who want to get into the communities and serve communities with their developing knowledge of the law and because there's this dearth of constitutional and civic knowledge in high schools,” Ahranjani said.

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