A youth runs away from a police officer.
A teenager confesses to a crime he or she did not commit because it seems like the fastest way out of a legal ordeal.
A high schooler physically resists a police officer during an arrest.
As the legal director of the Kansas City Youth Court housed at the UMKC School of Law, Mary Kay O’Malley follows closely the conversations about injustices in the legal system.
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She’s also observed another reality for many kids who go through Youth Court, which is a Jackson County Family Court diversion program. The kids are often first-time, non-violent offenders that could have avoided the system if they had a better understanding of how to interact with law enforcement — for instance, how to behave during a traffic stop.
“I want (young people) to be treated fairly,” O’Malley said. “And I don’t want kids to be railroaded...there are too many consequences.”
For the first time this year the Kansas City Youth Court program — in which high school volunteers actually represent juveniles, prosecute juveniles and sentence juveniles — has teamed up with the UMKC School of Law to host a Know Your Rights day in honor of Constitution Day on Saturday, Sept. 16.
Organizers say they hope the free 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. event will help youth between the ages of 12 and 19, specifically those that are more frequently exposed to danger and crime, understand how to properly interact with police, how the bill of rights applies to individuals and a citizen’s responsibilities as an adult.
It’s also a networking opportunity for any student interested in a law career, as well as those that already serve in roles through the Kansas City Youth Court, to meet and chat with police, attorneys and law professors as the youth court looks to diversify.
It’s that goal that prompted youth court leaders to apply for a grant issued by the university’s Division of Diversity and Inclusion that will fund “Know Your Rights” day, and other new initiatives this year.
“The idea is that we get diverse members of the community interested in a career in the law,” said Korey Lewis, the senior assistant director for the youth court.
Currently, more than 30 high schoolers serve on the Kansas City Youth Court. Students are trained to be defense lawyers, prosecutors and judges and make all sentencing decisions, such as community service, under the supervision of adults.
Created in 1990 as a way to get at-risk kids interested in the law, a constant challenge for Kansas City Youth Court over the years has been attracting a diverse group of applicants.
Prior to this year, the Youth Court didn’t have a centralized website, assistant director Kayla Kratofil said. And most of the program’s recruiting was done by word of mouth.
As a result, diversity within youth court members has ebbed and flowed over the years, and court leaders hope a revamped website, and new events will help the program reach high schoolers who have never heard of the program.
This year, the program will also debut a new initiative in which students in the School of Law’s mock trial program are paired up with youth court members. The youth court also plans to be more involved with the law school’s annual A Day in the Law event in March.
As for the Know Your Rights event, O’Malley she’s long thought about bringing law enforcement and local attorneys together to talk about individual rights.
The event will include some role-playing among the participants, is open to both parents and youth and includes a free lunch.
“It will be a neat time to see the defense attorneys and the police working together,” said Dakota Paris, a UMKC law student who volunteers with youth court.
O’Malley understands the us. vs. them mentality that can develop between citizens and the police, but she hopes Know Your Rights can help combat that.
“We don’t want there to be a Ferguson in KC,” O’Malley said.
Those interested in attending ‘Know Your Rights’ day can register at http://umkclaw.link/constitutiondayknowyourrights.