Thursday, October 25, 2018

Lifting Weights and Learning Legal Life Skills

Twenty-one year old Freddie Rivera is a weight-lifting electronic musician and lyricist. He’s starting his own small business. He values self-discipline and learning and gaining knowledge. He didn’t always know these things about himself. Coming from a rough background, he got caught up in some illegal activities in his teens.

In 2014, Freddie was looking for a new gym and discovered Bench Mark: a program that offers not only fitness training, but also academic training and career coaching for at-risk young men in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His life changed.

Founded by activist and mentor Will Kiefer, Bench Mark Program helped Freddie get his drivers’ license and his first job. It helped him get trained in forklift skills. And it’s helping him become a mentor to youth much like himself.

Will Kiefer’s background was pretty different than Freddie’s. In 2014, while still a student at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, he decided he wanted to mentor young men and women who were on juvenile probation. He started Bench Mark to connect with them through a fitness environment. Due to a chance connection—his aunt knew the founder of Street Law, the late Ed O’Brien—Will learned about Street Law and its curricula. News of Ed’s passing in 2015 prompted Will to reach out to Street Law, and he’s now been implementing our Legal Life Skills Program at Bench Mark for nearly a year.

Will says,

“Many of the young men and women we serve in the Bench Mark program – who are involved in the juvenile justice system – can’t conceptualize the overall system they’re involved in. They don’t understand the processes they’re going through, the conversations they’re having with judges, and probation officers and counselors and case workers… The overall system doesn’t make sense to them…. So, I thought if we can engage these kids and give them an understanding of the world they’re operating in… they’re going to be less afraid and more prepared to take the steps to get out of the juvenile justice system.”

Will appreciates that Street Law’s lessons and the scenarios they employ are understandable to the students, having been written at an educational and vocabulary level appropriate for youth. He says this has resulted in greater engagement from the students. “We normally serve them in a fitness setting,” Will said. “There are a ton of distractions. Generally, they’re used to exercising with us. So, to sit them down and say, we really need you to engage with this, this is going to be valuable for you, this is going to help you figure out where you are right now or where you can go – to get them to do that was tough. So it was helpful to have this curriculum that was relatable and easy to grasp.”

Freddie Rivera agrees. Being slightly older than most participants, Freddie’s role is more of a mentoring one—but he too finds the lessons useful and engaging. Among the lessons that stood out to Freddie and other participants were Rights & Responsibilities During Arrest and Dating & Sexual Assault. Freddie reports, “I liked rights and responsibilities during arrest, especially during a traffic stop. I like to gain knowledge and to understand the police perspective. The dating class talked about what’s rape and sexual assault, and how to speak to the opposite sex. Now I can talk to my friends about rights and responsibilities, like if a friend tells me about a girl and doesn’t know where to draw the line with her.” Will confirms that during the dating and sexual assault lesson in particular, the kids were extremely engaged and the conversation went far longer than planned.

Will Kiefer shared several examples of the positive impact the Legal Life Skills Program had on the young people he works with:

  • One student experienced a “lightbulb” moment during the lesson on Negotiating & Signing a Residential Lease. He and his mother had been signing lease after lease without knowledge of the protections that are available to them. During the lesson, he was captivated by what the speaker was saying and immediately went home to share his newfound knowledge with his mom.

  • In a class on Use of Force or Deadly Force, a police officer presented a scenario about an armed suspect running down a dark alley. He asked the kids, If you were a police officer, would you run down the alley with your own firearm drawn, or not? A lively discussion ensued. The lesson struck a chord with students, helping them recognize that if they were chasing this suspect, and had a family and kids at home, they too might run down the alley with a firearm drawn.

Will credits the Street Law lessons with helping youth better understand and navigate a confusing juvenile justice system.

“We take kids who make a few mistakes as they’re growing up and toss them into a system they don’t understand at all. And they have to go to these meetings, and perhaps they’re put in detention, and they have a probation officer and there’s house arrest, and they don’t understand the charges… That confusion breeds anger and that ends up turning our kids against a legal system that’s designed ultimately to try and help them. Legal Life Skills is helping us to eliminate that confusion, so that they can start recognizing that they can use the system as a tool to get out of trouble. And they don’t have to rebel against it.”

The Legal Life Skills Program at Bench Mark has seen great success in involving special guest experts (or community resource people) in the teaching of the lessons. Will has invited attorneys, housing representatives, law enforcement officers, judges, and probation officers to help teach lessons that are relevant to their area of work. In fact, one officer who presented knew Freddie throughout middle and high school; Freddie says he was really good with the kids. Freddie also reported, “The attorney [who presented] had a great sense of humor. He lightened up serious things so kids could understand them. One presenter had some association with the FBI. It was cool to have him come and talk to us.”

Freddie reiterated the value of the program to young people: “It’s beneficial to them. When I was a teenager, there wasn’t anything like it I knew of. Maybe I could have been able to avoid some situations. The classes help guide [the youth] in a positive direction.”

Learn more about Street Law's Legal Life Skills Program.