Full History

1970s | 1980s | 1990s | 2000s | 2010s

The 1970s

Early Pilot Programs in Washington, DC

Ed O'Brien at Georgetown University Law Center in the 1970sThe Street Law concept—teaching practical law to ordinary citizens—was first proposed in 1971 at Georgetown University Law Center. A small group led by Nancy Harrison, who was then director of D.C. Citizens for Better Public Education; Georgetown Law professor Jason Newman; and four law students—including future Street Law executive director Ed O’Brien—collaborated on a plan to teach law in District of Columbia public high schools.

This group from Georgetown Law drafted the first Street Law lessons, which covered practical aspects of criminal law, juvenile justice, consumer law, housing law, and individual rights and liberties.

The Street Law pioneers successfully promoted the idea of Street Law to Vincent Reed, the District of Columbia's associate superintendent of schools at the time, and the school system approved a pilot project to begin in 1972 at Woodrow Wilson and Eastern High Schools. The Street Law pilot was a huge success!

The program has served as a model program for law schools around the world, and it grew into a full-fledged, credit-bearing clinical program at Georgetown that continues today.

An organization was formed to pursue the Street Law mission at other law schools, and throughout the 1970s, the program spread across the U.S. Its early adopters included the University of Notre Dame, Cleveland State University, University of Denver, University of San Francisco, University of Tennessee, and University of California-Davis.

The 1970s also brought Street Law programs into prisons, with law students teaching practical law lessons to inmates in District of Columbia correctional facilities. After correctional officers noted that they, too, needed to learn their rights, Street Law expanded the clinic to ensure that prison officials and correctional officers also understood the law.

Street Law in the Classroom

Young woman participating in the DC mock trial tournamentDuring this decade, Street Law expanded its programming to include social studies teachers. With funding from the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration at the U.S. Department of Justice (part of which later became the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, or OJJDP), Street Law and four other national organizations began the process of introducing what was called “law-related education” to the nation’s schools. With consistent bipartisan support from Congress, this OJJDP-funded program continued for nearly three decades and resulted in substantial curriculum development and training for teachers throughout the U.S.

As this national process began, there was consistent support for Street Law’s practical, interactive lessons, and Street Law staff members were encouraged to develop their lessons into a textbook. In tandem with West Publishing Company, Street Law published a small run of textbooks for use in the Washington, DC program in 1974, and then published the first national edition of Street Law: A Course in Practical Law in 1975.

The national law-related education program led to the creation of statewide civic learning programs in almost every state. Some of these were housed at state bar associations, some at law schools, while others became free-standing nonprofit organizations. These statewide organizations became the backbone of law-related and civic education in the U.S.

Street Law in the Justice System

In the late 1970s, Street Law expanded into justice system settings. The Honorable Norma Holloway Johnson, a District of Columbia Superior Court judge who later became chair of Street Law’s National Advisory Committee, observed a need for Street Law programming among the young people who came before her in court. She initiated a Street Law court diversion program to ensure the young people involved in the court system understood the law. Youth attended Street Law classes every Saturday, and, if they succeeded in the course, their charges were dropped. This program began with first offenders for non-violent acts, but was later expanded to juveniles charged with weapons offenses.

Street Law promoted the use of its empowering teaching strategies in juvenile justice systems nationally and Street Law has become a part of probation services in many other states.

The 1980s

Teens, Crime, and the Community

In 1986, Street Law, along with the National Crime Prevention Council, initiated an innovative approach to crime prevention through the development of Teens, Crime, and the Community. This program taught middle school students about criminal and juvenile justice and how to avoid violent crime, substance abuse, child abuse, acquaintance rape, shoplifting, and property crime. Students also developed and implemented crime prevention projects.

This crime prevention education program naturally led to the involvement of police officers and school resource officers (SROs). In response, Street Law developed a separate set of lessons so that these school-based police officers could benefit from Street Law’s proven classroom pedagogy.

Street Law in South Africa

South African flagAlso in 1986, Street Law expanded its work internationally. Professor David McQuoid-Mason, dean of the law faculty at the University of Natal in Durban, South Africa, met with Street Law executive director Ed O’Brien to discuss starting a Street Law program in his country. Professor McQuoid-Mason obtained funding from the U.S. State Department to bring O'Brien to South Africa for a month to run workshops and share Street Law’s philosophy.

Despite operating during Apartheid, the Street Law program was almost universally accepted in South Africa. Professor McQuoid-Mason worked to adapt the U.S. Street Law textbook for South Africa and convinced local high school principals to allow Street Law courses to be taught by law students. McQuoid-Mason even met with Nelson Mandela upon Mandela's release from prison in 1990 and reported that he was a big supporter of Street Law. The program expanded to 17 of the 21 law schools in South Africa and eventually added new components like a space colony simulation and mock youth parliament.

The 1990s

Expanded Educational Programming

Teachers pose in front of the U.S. Supreme CourtOver the course of the decade, Street Law made it a priority to address the weak treatment of the U.S. Supreme Court in high school government and civics textbooks. Knowing that high school students respond enthusiastically to studying real cases about real people, Street Law collaborated with the Supreme Court Historical Society to develop a summer institute for teachers to help them expand and improve their instruction about the Court and its role in students’ lives. Street Law has turned this opportunity, which continues today, into one of the nation’s premier professional development programs for high school social studies teachers.

Street Law and the Supreme Court Historical Society also collaborated to develop www.Landmarkcases.org, which provides materials that help teachers deliver engaging instruction about the Court’s landmark cases.

In 1995, Street Law developed a program to teach young parents about the law. Lesson topics included child abuse and neglect, family law, government benefits, and rights and responsibilities of tenants. Classes were held in community settings as well as in special school-based parenting education programs.

Street Law also developed a text for teaching conflict resolution. We Can Work It Out, which featured classroom lessons and mediation simulations, was first published in 1993. An adaptation of the lessons for use with upper elementary school students was published in 1998. 

International Expansions

Encouraged by the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994, Street Law staff in South Africa and the United States collaborated to create a text that explored the components of a successful democracy in South Africa and the United States. This partnership resulted in the Democracy for All text, which has also been adapted and translated for use in many countries.

Then, in 1996, Street Law leaders in South Africa and the United States began to collaborate on a human rights textbook that could be used across borders. The result was Human Rights for All, a text that was adapted and used in a number of other countries.

The success in South Africa led to a Street Law expansion into Central and South America through the support of USAID and others. Programs were established in Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Panama. Street Law staff partnered with local communities and organizations to visit program sites and edit curricular materials to fit local cultural contexts.

In 1997, Street Law received funding from the Open Society Institute (Soros Foundation) to expand the Street Law experience to 17 countries, including Russia and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Street Law partnered with local NGOs and provided training to local teachers and law students to collaborate on the development of classroom curricula about law, government, democracy, and human rights. 

The Founding of Street Law, Inc.

From its inception in the early 1970s until 1996, Street Law had been a project of the Consortium of Universities of Metropolitan Washington. In 1996, Street Law was incorporated as Street Law, Inc., a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization with a governing board of directors.

The 2000s

Street Law’s Corporate Legal Diversity Pipeline Program

In 2001, Street Law collaborated with lawyers at DuPont and the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) to support increased diversity in the legal profession, through the development of the Legal Diversity Pipeline Program for Corporate Legal Departments. The program, which is ongoing, is designed to both teach civil law topics and encourage young people of color to consider law as a career option. In 2008, a partnership with National Association for Law Placement (NALP) expanded the Legal Diversity Pipeline Program to include law firms.

Continued Growth of International Street Law Programs

Volunteer lawyer teaching a Street Law lesson to youthThe U.S. Department of Education recognized the value of Street Law-style programming in international education settings when it funded the Democracy Education Exchange Program and Deliberating in a Democracy—two partnership programs among Street Law, Constitutional Rights Foundation, and Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago. The programs promoted civic education and democratic institutions in Eastern and Central European countries, and, later, in four countries in Latin America. Groups of teachers and program staff traveled between countries to conduct workshops and classroom visits. Students connected across borders through videoconferences to debate democracy and constitutional issues.

In 2004, Street Law partnered with the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy to create an adaptation of the Democracy for All text that included excerpts from the Quran to illustrate how Islam and democracy are compatible. The resulting text, Islam and Democracy: Toward Effective Citizenship (2005), published in Arabic, has been used successfully in a number of countries including Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt.

The 2010s

In 2013, Street Law began work with its publishing partner, McGraw-Hill Education, to co-author a new edition of United States Government: Our Democracy. This high school textbook, published in 2016, incorporates the best in Street Law pedagogy. It is designed to help students “do” democracy, not just learn about it. Completion of a U.S. government course is a high school graduation requirement in most states; therefore, this new publication has tremendous potential for reaching young people and advancing Street Law’s mission.

In 2015, Street Law expanded its programming for society's most vulnerable populations. The Legal Life Skills Programs bring Street Law's empowering practical law lessons to survivors of intimate partner violence, youth in the juvenile justice or child welfare systems, and youth who are homeless, pregnant and/or parenting, or LGBTQ+.

In 2016, we re-envisioned our program and curriculum for police officers. The Police & Teens Program teaches young people about law, with an emphasis on crime, public policy, police procedures, community policing, and personal safety—while also focusing on building communication and respect between law enforcement officers and young people.