Pupils ask lawyers to advise on police power
Schools are turning to lawyers in response to demands from pupils who want to know their rights in the face of tougher policing to combat gangs and knife crime.
Teenagers, concerned about being stereotyped as antisocial hoodies and knife-wielding gang members, are asking for lawyers to come into schools to explain what to do when they are stopped and searched.
Mary Davies, head of citizenship at an east London girls' secondary, said: "There's a perception among young people that they're treated unfairly. They want to know what police should be doing. They want to know their right to legal representation, their right to silence."
Following requests from teachers such as Ms Davies, the Citizenship Foundation set up a programme that pairs solicitors with schools. The lawyers deliver lessons on issues such as human rights, consumer law, employment law and discrimination.
But the sessions on police power have proven the most popular. Don Rowe, director of curriculum at the Citizenship Foundation, said: "There's a sense among young people that the law is there to stop them from doing things. They view it as hostile, rather than particularly enabling or supportive.
"So teenagers out on a Saturday evening may think that police powers are worth knowing about."
Many also feel vulnerable because of the image presented in the media of young people as knife-wielding gang members.
"Reading the papers, people would think the whole country is flooded by a youth crimewave," said Mr Rowe. "Many young people feel maligned by popular press images. They feel angry that curfews are placed on them when they're just going about their lawful business."
Ms Davies agrees. At her school, many pupils have brothers or cousins who have been stopped by police.
"They say that they tend to be lumped together as hoodies and hoodlums because of their age," she said. "They want to have a defence mechanism against any injustices. Essentially, the question is: can they do that, miss?"
Chloe Burke, head of humanities at St Matthew High in Manchester, believes such questions are a natural consequence of adolescence. Her Year 10 pupils were recently briefed on their legal rights by local solicitors.
"They're very inquisitive about their rights and responsibilities, though with some of them it's their rights more than their responsibilities," she said. "They want to know where they stand in the world. And it's also dispelling some of the myths they've picked up from TV."
Fifteen-year-old St Matthew High pupil Adam Silk agreed. "They come from the legal profession," he said. "They've studied all the figures and facts. So they know what they're doing.
"I'm not a kid who'll get into trouble. I'm a good kid. But it's nice to know your rights."
His classmate, 14-year-old Olivia Henderson, thought it was good to hear those rights from lawyers. "The police would say, you can't do this, you can't do that," she said. "But solicitors say, you can do this. Often, people think the law is a bad thing. But actually it's just there to protect you."
Indeed, the scheme also aims to illustrate why certain police powers are necessary in order to maintain law and order.
"It's not just about the abuse of one group by another," said Ms Davies. "Even if it's inconvenient to individuals, certain powers are for the greater good of society."