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YLS Students Win Entrepreneurship Competition for Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project

A team of YLS students recently won the Yale Entrepreneurial Society Y50K Entrepreneurship Competition, earning their fledgling organization $25,000 in cash and services--but they don't intend to turn a profit. The Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project received first prize in the Y50K competition's social entrepreneurship category for ideas with a charitable mission.

JRAP uses a video-based curriculum to teach high-school students in New Haven about their rights when encountering the criminal justice system. The project was founded by Gabriel Bankier-Plotkin '02 and Homer Robinson '02, along with Yale College senior Laura McCargar; Nina Rabin '03 and Samuel Davidoff '03 also worked on the team.

Bankier-Plotkin and Robinson conceived the idea for a video, while working in the YLS Street Law program, after hearing from local teenagers about tense and unpleasant interactions with the police. Many kids first come into contact with the justice system for petty offenses, and can end up in stressful encounters with police officers. Bankier-Plotkin and Robinson thought to use a video narrative to inform kids and help them make responsible decisions.

Robinson had a background in filmmaking and Bankier-Plotkin had experience in education, and the project quickly developed. They enlisted the help of area youth, the New Haven Police Training Academy, and community organizations to produce the video. Kids helped come up with scenarios, dialogue, and music. Police and kids acted out the scenes. The result was a twenty-five-minute video, cops, kids, rights, and respect.

The next year, JRAP developed a curriculum to accompany the video and trained peer educators from New Haven high schools and YLS students to team up to present the material. As Robinson tells it, JRAP got invited into a few high-school classrooms on an ad hoc basis, "then the word spread that it was good."

"It's most effective if taught to kids by kids," says Robinson, so the peer educators present most of the material, and the law students provide backup expertise. The JRAP volunteers go into one class at a time. "A small group is the only way to allow kids to share their experiences," says Bankier-Plotkin. The video serves as a prompt for discussion.

JRAP teaches kids about their Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendment rights, with information on pragmatic situations, such as the implications of running away from a police officer. It also covers how the New Haven Police Department's complaint procedure works, and "encourages [kids] to use it as a way of keeping the police accountable," according to Robinson.

So far, the JRAP program has been presented to over 300 students--with a very positive response. Using the most basic measurement, Robinson says, "for one thing, the kids stay awake and pay attention for ninety minutes." JRAP has also been invited back to every class it has worked in. And the group is working with the Yale psychology and sociology departments to develop a more sophisticated measurement of the program's impact.

Bankier-Plotkin and Robinson hope that the award from the Y50K competition will help JRAP get better established in the New Haven community. JRAP is currently in the process of incorporating as a non-profit organization, and Laura McCargar will become a full-time executive director later this year, while Robinson and Bankier-Plotkin, who are both graduating, will move onto JRAP's board of directors.

In the future, they plan to export the model to other communities, but it will never be a sealed package. Producing the video locally involves the police, schools, and kids, and then in the movie, students see familiar streets, police officers, and kids. "That makes it a much more powerful tool," says Bankier-Plotkin.