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Thanks to two Yale Law School students, New Haven, Conn., teens are learning how to handle police encounters in their classrooms, instead of on the streets. This year, 1,000 New Haven students will watch a video that may feel uncomfortably familiar. One scene opens with kids on a stoop listening to rap music when trouble looms: A police cruiser stops. One boy, apparently panicking, grabs his backpack and runs, putting himself at risk. In another scene, police officers ask the teens to turn down their music, prompting a girl to mouth off and face arrest. In a third, the police ask to look inside a girl’s backpack. She stalls, waiting for her mother to arrive. The need for such “training” videos is clear to creators Gabriel Bankier Plotkin, 28, of Milwaukee, and Homer Robinson, 34, of New York City, who both graduated from Yale last June. The friends met at law school orientation in 1999 and later co-taught in Street Law — a national organization that educates middle and high school students about law, democracy, and human rights. Both wanted to do public service law; both had worked with at-risk kids. Both knew about the mistrust and tension between urban teens and the police. Robinson, an experienced documentary filmmaker, teamed with Plotkin to address these problems through Youth Rights Media, a project they founded in their second year at Yale. First came the videotape, cast with local school students and police academy trainees. Plotkin and Robinson then recruited teens and fellow law students to lead postvideo discussions. The objective was to teach teens about their rights in law enforcement encounters, and about how their behavior could prompt violent consequences. Youth Rights Media (YRM) is now incorporated as a not-for-profit. Its creators plan to participate in this month’s annual juvenile defender leadership summit, run by the American Bar Association in Phoenix. Back in New Haven, more than 600 teens already have seen YRM programs, and the organization is working with the schools to ensure that all incoming ninth graders view the curriculum. “YRM is about kids understanding the powers of citizenship as well as the responsibilities — especially kids who feel disenfranchised,” says Robinson. “We’re teaching them that they, too, have a stake in their communities.” He’s particularly proud of the grasp of difficult material by “peer educators” like Taryn Anderson, a senior at Hillhouse High School in New Haven. “I have a better understanding of the laws we teach,” Anderson says. “This year I want to find out even more about search and seizure and about probable cause and how officers use it to their benefit.” The sessions also can be educational for the law students, who field questions outside their training. Says volunteer Nina Rabin, Yale ’03: “There are definitely questions we get that I have to research and find out more about in order to answer, particularly things specific to the juvenile or the school context.” Last June, Plotkin and Robinson named Laura McCargar, Yale ’02, executive director of YRM. Plotkin, now clerking for Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin, and Robinson, who will start as a DeKalb County public defender in metro Atlanta in January, will manage the program long-distance. To fund YRM, the two men have raised $110,000 from donations, foundation grants, and awards. With their annual operating budget now at $65,000, they are almost fully funded through 2005. A Web site, youthrightsmedia.org, scheduled to go live by year’s end, will provide program information, a volunteers’ resource center, and, eventually, a forum for questions on civil rights and other legal issues. If a survey, now in progress, shows the program to be effective, the directors plan to expand to other cities. Says Robinson: “When I decided to go to law school, that’s what I wanted to do: find a way to use film and video as legal education tools. Three years later, I’m so grateful that I met Gabe on that first day of orientation; and it’s still amazing to me that we did it.”

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