Denver Bar Association
September 2011
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A Seat at The Bar: Dressed for Civics Succes -- Students Discover the Constitution Through Lessons in Dress Codes

by Monica Rosenbluth

A Seat at the Bar

Past DBA President Elsa Martinez Tenreiro visits a class at Godsman Elementary School.  DBA file photo.
Past DBA President Elsa Martinez Tenreiro visits a class at Godsman Elementary School. DBA file photo.

Volunteer for Constitution Day

This year, the week of Sept. 12 marks the 6th annual Denver Bar Association Constitution Day celebration. Attorneys are needed to visit fifth- and eighth-grade classrooms and talk to the students about the Constitution. Materials are available, along with donuts and coffee, at the DBA offices Sept. 7 to 9 from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. Interested? Contact Carolyn Gravit at cgravit@cobar.org.

Just What is Constitution Day?

Constitution Day, observed Sept. 17, comm emorates the date in 1787 when delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia signed the U.S. Constitution, according to the American Bar Association. In 2005, Congress designated the day as one to educate students about the importance of the Constitution. For more information and resources for volunteers, visit abaconstitution.org.

"Good morning," I said to 36 eighth-graders at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver on a September day in 2008. It was Constitution Day, and before class, I had enthusiastically explained to their teacher my plan to teach the kids about the First Amendment by having them write their own school dress code. A flicker of uncertainty passed over her face. "Fabulous!" she said brightly, recovering quickly. "They’ll really get hands-on with that subject."

Earlier that month, a fifth-grader in the Aurora Public Schools system had been suspended in connection with a T-shirt he wore to school that said, "Obama is a terrorist’s best friend." The school administrators maintained that the T-shirt violated their dress code because it could interrupt the learning environment. The student countered that his First Amendment right to free speech had been violated.

I talked to the Dora Moore kids about the rights and freedoms the First Amendment guarantees, and the exceptions to those freedoms. "So," I said, "while it may be OK for you to stand in front of the public library and complain loudly about the food in the school cafeteria, free speech has its limits—you can’t yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded movie theater, for example, because that could put people in danger if everybody tries to leave at the same time." One student raised her hand. "What if I wore a T-shirt that says that I hate the cafeteria food? It’s not talking. Is that speech?" Another student took it a step further. "I’d make sure there was a food fight at lunch that day!" Aha! I thought. They’re hooked.

I asked the kids to pretend they were the school principal and decide what kinds of "speech" they would allow and why. Their conclusions were telling—order and harmony could be maintained, apparently, if a John McCain supporter and a Barack Obama fan sat next to each other in class, or even played against each other in a pick-up basketball game, but things changed quickly if a kid were to roll down one sock and leave the other up, which can signal gang involvement. And did you know that wearing Colorado Rockies clothing sometimes connotes a particular gang affiliation? I didn’t. "What if somebody came to school wearing really saggy pants?" I asked, eager to share the only thing I knew about gang attire. "Well, you have to consider maybe that kid was running late that day, and he grabbed his older brother’s pants by mistake," one student offered. "It all just depends." Geez, I thought, this kid is headed to law school for sure. D

 

Monica Rosenbluth grew up in Denver. A former special district/public finance attorney, she currently works for the Higher Education Access Alliance, a statewide coalition dedicated to increasing access to higher education for Coloradans through the ASSET bill. Rosenbluth also sits on the board of the Rocky Mountain Region of the Anti-Defamation League, where she co-chairs the Government Affairs Committee. She lives near City Park with her husband and their two young daughters.


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