NEW YORK - When 10th-graders at the School for Human Rights debated in a recent class whether Crips co-founder Stanley Tookie Williams should be executed, they knew the question was moot.
Williams, a convicted killer who later became an outspoken critic of gang violence, died by injection in December. But for the students at this unusual school in Brooklyn, many of whom grew up in gang-plagued neighborhoods, there was nothing irrelevant about the subject.
Our kids have a strong sense of justice and violence...What we don't want to do is make them more angry. What we want to do is empower them.
Jessamyn Waldman, Human Rights Education Associates
The School for Human Rights is one of nearly 150 "small" public schools that opened in New York City in the last three years under a national movement to raise student achievement by shrinking school sizes. Such schools often have specific themes. Although it's normal for schools to discuss human rights, one built around the concept is rare.
"We're not teaching the kids what to think, but to think," Principal Kevin Dotson said, adding that some topics require "scaffolding" first. "We don't just hit sixth graders with 'Let's talk about torture today!"'
The school strives to produce "socially engaged young adults committed to equity, dignity and social consciousness," according to its mission statement.
Human rights groups are closely watching it as they seek ways to influence educational curricula nationwide. Amnesty International USA and Human Rights Education Associates have helped plan the school.
Students tackle topics from colonialism to the United Nations. They may track census data on poverty in their neighborhoods as part of math class or read novels on genocide for literature credit.
"Our kids have a strong sense of justice and violence," said Jessamyn Waldman, who represents HREA, the school's lead partner, which helps organize its curriculum and activities. "What we don't want to do is make them more angry. What we want to do is empower them."
School officials try to stay objective when discussing controversial subjects such as the death penalty.
School is 'a big family'
The school, in its second year, consists of grades six, seven, nine and 10 and will add more levels as students advance until in contains grades six through 12. It has about 300 students, most of whom are of Caribbean descent. Admission is open to students across the city, but most come from nearby neighborhoods.
"It's kind of like a big family," said 15-year-old Quaseem Rabb.
Classrooms include students with varying academic abilities, which is one way to embrace a human rights ideal, Dotson said.
Administrators look for ways to apply the human rights framework beyond classes. Signs in hallways ask students to talk to school officials about conflicts, and students who commit infractions appear before a "fairness committee" and undergo mediation with others involved.
Karen Robinson, director of the human rights education program for Amnesty International USA, said as word of the school has spread, other educators have contacted her to see how they can promote similar programs elsewhere. She's working with teachers in Florida who want to establish human rights academies within their existing schools.
After classes ended on a recent day, a handful of students at The School for Human Rights stayed for an extra, elective class. The subject was law, and Waldman, who led the discussion, tossed around phrases such as "preponderance of evidence" and "strict liability" while students took careful notes.
The topic turned to another life imprisonment vs. death penalty case involving a high-profile defendant.
The students discussed whether Zacarias Moussaoui, who has pleaded guilty to conspiring to fly planes into U.S. buildings but denies any involvement in the September 11 attacks, could receive a fair hearing in a country still reeling from the attacks.
They were certain he could not.
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.