Don your critical thinking caps and check your assumptions at the door. A new Berkeley High class is offering a deep dive into the criminal justice system and giving students the chance to debate and analyze many of the complex topics most relevant in the world around them.
The class, Law and Social Justice, is wrapping up its first year at Berkeley High. It’s part of the school’s Career Technical Education program to expose students to different “career pathways” in fields like the fire sciences, stagecraft and the building trades, engineering and robotics and, now, law and policing. The pathways put an emphasis on work-based skills and real-world experiences. Students get into the field and hear from working professionals to learn about opportunities beyond the frontline positions that get the most attention. The purpose of Law and Social Justice is twofold: to evaluate and critique the criminal justice system while also helping students learn about careers in law enforcement, politics and the courts.
Teacher James Dopman, a nearly 20-year veteran at Berkeley High, worked closely with police, public defenders, law schools and death penalty reform advocates, district attorneys, Police Review commissioners and more to get students a front row seat to the many sides of the justice system. Over the past nine months, Dopman brought in dozens of guest speakers and went on field trips with students to San Quentin State Prison, San Francisco Superior Court and the Berkeley Police Department. Students went on ride-alongs with police and shadowed law students. They were invited to do mini-internships with the public defender’s office in San Francisco.
Along the way, students read about, wrote about and debated topics such as how race and social class intersect with justice and law, how to enforce the law while maintaining justice, how cases are built and prosecuted, how the system treats juveniles compared to adults, how the prison system balances punishment and rehabilitation, and how the criminal justice system, overall, could be improved.
“My job is really to set the table and educate the kids on the nuance of the stuff, to debate whether this is the way we want things to be,” Dopman said. “If you don’t think this is the way it should be, how can we go about the political process of changing it?”
From the beginning, the elective had a momentum of its own. When planning first began in 2016, the idea was to launch the class in fall 2017. But the curriculum Dopman wrote was approved for college credit faster than anticipated. Then, even though the class didn’t make the spring course catalogue last year, leaving much of the promotion to teachers, staff and the school resource officer who handed out fliers at lunch, nearly 50 students signed up. That meant there were two sections of the class in its first year. Those numbers are even more notable, perhaps, because the course is only open to juniors and seniors.
Students, who meet daily, said the year-long class was very much a game changer: making them better informed about and better equipped to analyze current events with logic rather than emotion. Some said it has shifted their career focus from other fields to the legal system. Many said the class helped humanize police officers while allowing them to see more clearly the ways the system still needs to be improved. A group of about a dozen students sat down with Berkeleyside to share some of the insights they learned.
Annie Stonebarger, a senior, said the class helped her understand the fundamentals of the legal system: “It’s talked about so much in Berkeley, but I feel like I never had a class in school that really walked me though all the steps of how it works.”
Learning how the system actually works — from one’s rights when interacting with police to the different stages of a court case, as well as basic procedures and terminology — helped students think about tangible solutions to the problems they see around them. Students said they came into class knowing little about the law and policing, despite how prevalent the topic has become in society and the media.
Said senior Eva Szilardi-Tierney, thinking back to the early days of the course: “The question came up, what is social justice? And I realized I didn’t have any answer. I didn’t know what that meant. It’s something that’s important to me, and I don’t actually know that much about it.”
Course made room for diverse views, friendly debate, critical thinking
For some, it was their only non-AP academic class. Others were drawn to the course to learn about the array of jobs they might pursue in criminal justice. Many students said the class was the most diverse one they’ve taken at Berkeley High, both in terms of demographics and perspectives.
“Since we’re in Berkeley, people tend to be pretty liberal across the board. There’s no escaping that,” said Lola Christison, a junior. Added senior RJ Ishimaru, “Even though Berkeley prides itself on diversity, a lot of the time, people are too scared to say a different view. But if everyone has the exact same idea, there’s no debate.”
Students said they welcomed the fact that Dopman’s class offered something different.
Senior Jane Hood described it as “debate-heavy,” a place where healthy conversation and even disagreement were welcome, as opposed to “a lot of other classes where you dance around the topic of race.” Being in a room where difficult topics can be discussed in a mature way, she said, was “really rare.”
Lily Sabath, a junior, said it was refreshing to be in a class with alternative views. It helped her better understand other ways of seeing the world, she said, “rather than everyone sitting in the circle saying the same thing.” Having room for “friendly debate,” and learning to “debate ideas not people,” was a theme that came up repeatedly in conversation with students. Said Aaron Sanchez, who admitted he’s the kind of person who enjoys rocking the boat in conversations online with friends: “If you shut down the chance for political discourse, you’re not going to achieve anything. Political discourse is what really drives progress.”
Dopman said he worked to create that atmosphere of free-flowing ideas by asking students to “check their assumptions at the door.” He asked students to pay attention to areas they might be ignorant about, rather than thinking they knew the answers. That’s no small task, at any age. To foster that mindset, he ran a “silent activity” in the College & Career Center where he asked students to listen to statements about different experiences, backgrounds and viewpoints. If a statement applied to their lives, students were invited to stand up.
Some of the statements related to experiences with police, or discrimination due to race. There were statements highlighting whether certain crimes should remain illegal, and others about family demographics. Students said they were struck by the bravery of peers willing to stand up when they were clearly in the minority or held an unpopular view. They said it was powerful to learn, even without words, about hardships faced by their peers and stark differences of opinion.
Said Annie Stonebarger, a senior: “It really helped us see each other in the class and have true discussions with each other. It helped us understand where the other people were coming from. In 50 years, if I don’t remember anything I learned in high school, I know I’ll remember that day.”
Student: “Everyone should have this knowledge”
Students said they also appreciated getting more informed about current events, and that the class got them excited about reading the news. Junior Neelam Khan said she came into the class, having moved from Pakistan, viewing police as heroes. After learning more about police brutality, she began to question that appraisal. She said it had been confusing, but helped her grow into a more analytical person, more aware and confident to assess the stories making headlines and the political process overall. Other students agreed.
“It used to be, when I saw a police shooting on the news, I was sure the police were being racist,” said Caleb Millikan, a junior. “I’m not saying that wasn’t true in some cases. But, learning more about the police side, I’m able to be more articulate and know more about both sides. I feel like that’s really valuable.”
Classmate Aaron Sanchez, a junior, said he doesn’t view highly-charged police-community interactions the way he did before. He first asks himself, how am I going to analyze this? He said he tries to look at his beliefs to consider how they influence his perspective. Those are steps he wasn’t as aware of before the course.
“This is a turning point,” he said. “It’s become something the school needed.”
Students said it was invigorating to be in a class that was so relevant, considering the national dialogue on policing, race and equity. They said they felt they learned more than in other classes because they were so engaged with the material, and because there was less of an emphasis on tests and more on critical thinking. And they credited Dopman’s teaching, and his “ability to bring everything to life,” along with the many guest lecturers and outside experiences, with helping make the course so memorable.
“I’m going through my notes outside of school, in my free time,” said Lily Sabath. “I just feel like everyone should be able to take this class, or a similar class. Everyone should have this knowledge.”
On the career side of things, students said they were struck by how many jobs there are in law enforcement beyond simply police officer or attorney. Even on the police side, there are dispatchers and data analysts, jail staff, parking enforcement, crime scene technicians and other positions. Students got to see some of those roles firsthand when they went on small group tours of the Berkeley Police Department last fall. On the tours, students were interested to see how dispatchers work in the communications center, look inside police cars, learn about evidence collection and storage, and see the indoor shooting range in the basement.
The department is just a block from Berkeley High, but many said they had walked by countless times without any understanding of what happened inside.
“I don’t know what I thought was behind those doors,” said Jane Hood. “But not that.”
BPD: “Not just a uniform to show up when bad things happen”
Dopman partnered with the Berkeley Police Department, particularly in the first semester, to arrange the ride-alongs and tours, as well as a number of guest speakers from throughout the agency. Students learned about BPD efforts in de-escalation from Sgt. Spencer Fomby, and heard from sex crimes and homicide investigators about how they do their work. They got into lengthy debates about whether BPD should have Tasers — officers don’t carry them — and whether body cameras will be the panacea some say they are. Students often drove the discussion and helped shape the weekly curriculum based on their interests and questions.
“You have textbook stuff interacting with reality in a way that’s very powerful for the students,” Dopman said.
Capt. Ed Spiller, who ran the department tours and helped coordinate BPD activities in class with Dopman, said the hope is that students learn “we’re not just mean guys coming over there to arrest you and ruin your life.”
Added Sgt. Andrew Frankel, department spokesman: “We’re building relationships with a segment of the community that maybe we haven’t had direct contact with.… It’s an opportunity to get humanized: I’m not just a uniform to show up when bad things happen.”
Spiller said the department wants to encourage more young people from Berkeley to consider working for BPD down the line, and wants to be more integrated into the broader community in general. The department used to have more programs to build those relationships, but they were discontinued as staffing declined over the years. Having more people from the community working inside the department could help build better relations over time. Spiller acknowledged, too, that police officers don’t always make efforts to smile or connect in friendly ways with the public when they’re out on patrol. He said BPD hopes to combat that as part of its participation in the class.
“A lot of it is making positive contacts with people, and they’ll see that you really aren’t just that uniform that can look intimidating,” he said.
Officers said they were impressed at the quality of discussion in the class, the relevance of the questions, and the students’ interest in hearing the police perspective. They also said they appreciated the open exchange, which helped police and students learn from each other. In those conversations, students were interested in everything from how officers put aside biases during work to what BPD has done to address concerns related to the Black Lives Matter movement. Students asked about how to behave in a police encounter, and when police have the right to draw, and fire, their guns. Some students just wanted to know the basics, such as “how do I just say hi?” “We see you, but how do we interact with you in a positive way?” they wondered.
School Resource Officer Matt McGee, who was based at Berkeley High this past year as the department’s main connection with the school district, was a frequent presence in class, getting to know the students and making himself available for questions.
McGee said, particularly in this political climate, having relationships within the school community can be important for everyone during a police response. He recalled one instance of a call near campus where crowds of students, who had seen only part of an encounter, were getting upset about the presence of officers. McGee said he was able to move dozens of students — who had begun yelling at officers — over to another area so police could do their job. That was only possible because students knew him and trusted him enough to listen, which helped calm a situation that might otherwise not have gone so well. McGee also credited the prior school resource officer with his work building that trust.
His frequent presence in class has helped deepen some of those bonds further. Now, he said, he’ll be up on Shattuck Avenue and hear a voice yell, “Hey McGee,” and find it’s a student from Dopman’s class just saying hello. Student Sanchez made a similar point, about McGee in particular.
“When I see him, now I think, that’s Matt McGee, instead of ‘Officer McGee,'” he said. “We get to know them, not just as police, but also as people. And, when they’re off duty, you know them as a person instead of a badge number.”
Dopman: Students need space to learn who they’re going to be
Dopman said the class has been something of a “high water mark” in his career that exceeded his expectations and transformed how he teaches. In remarks to the Berkeley City Council in March, he called teaching it “a powerful privilege for me.” And that wasn’t what he came into the planning process thinking: “To say that I was cautiously skeptical was an understatement,” he told council.
In recent months, students visited Boalt Hall, the UC Berkeley law school, to learn about law degrees. They’ve talked about mistrials, evaluated the landmark Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, and learned the meaning of “double jeopardy.” They learned about legal standards — such as probable cause, reasonable suspicion and other concepts — and how they form the basis for police stops and searches. They heard about the history of the public defender system and sat in on preliminary hearings, which are like mini-trials where a judge decides whether there’s enough evidence for a case to move ahead to trial. They also talked about how the criminal justice system is different for people with resources — and those without. In late April, they went on a tour of San Quentin prison, and sat down with inmates there.
Next year, Dopman will run two sections of the intro course again, with plans in 2018 for a more advanced course that’s still in development. That segment will be more in-depth, and more topic-driven. Dopman said he hopes there will be more access to internships, and more one-on-one interaction with Boalt, law firms and the Berkeley police. He wants the advanced group to look more philosophically and more sociologically at crime, at questions such as who defines crime, and what its cultural impacts are. He says the class could look at the intersections of homelessness and mental health with enforcement. It could look at substance abuse and legalization of marijuana, or at sexual assault on college campuses. There could be a deeper look at the courts, the history of juries, and prisons: public vs. private, reentry and recidivism, the constitutionality of solitary confinement. There are a lot of options on the table.
Dopman said it had been a “dizzying experience” to create the class and see it develop, building partnerships along the way, and, over time, having many resources come to him as his name got into the community. He said he’s been amazed at the number of guest speakers who came to class — 20-25 — and noted that students didn’t cover quite as much ground as he’d mapped out. But he said the flexible nature of the class, its ability to deviate from the syllabus to dive deeper into particular student interests and timely topics, was also part of what made it so successful.
“Sometimes I don’t know where my lessons are going to go,” Dopman admitted. “I develop enough of a plan to know where I’m going, but I don’t box myself in.… It’s like spinning plates, but it all comes together at the end of the semester. I’m building a road as I’m driving 80 mph on it.”
He said it had been eye-opening to watch students “wrestle with these contradictions they didn’t realize they had,” and see them grow throughout the year to become more analytical and more informed about social justice and law enforcement as a whole. And the class has broader impacts, too.
Dopman said he tried to “dial down the stress” and make his class like “that college class you always enjoyed going to.” The idea, in addition to boosting critical thinking and analytical skills, is to let students “try a hat on” as far as a possible field of interest. Students also get to work on “soft skills,” such as showing up on time and being in a more professional environment.
“K-12 education doesn’t give students enough space to flail a little bit and learn who they’re going to be,” Dopman said. The educator, who for 18 years has taught social studies, history, economics and political science at Berkeley High, is also now a coordinator for the Career Technical Education program, working with program supervisor Wyn Skeels.
Dopman said one idea he tried to emphasize to students is that it’s OK for them not to know what job they want to pursue. He described the pressure many students feel to, say, get a 4.0 and be a doctor by age 28. Having a range of officers, with a range of backgrounds, come in to talk about the various routes they took to get into policing had driven home the point that one’s career path can be circuitous, no matter where it ends up.
“Most of us did not have a linear slingshot into the careers we’re in,” he said.