In the Virginia Department of Education’s History and Social Science Standards of Learning for Virginia Public Schools (2015), the state aims to “instill relevant skills so that students can deal intelligently with controversy … be aware of their rights … fulfill their responsibilities … to obtain, understand, and evaluate information relating to the performance of public officials; and (be) willing to hold those officials accountable.”
The York County School Division, Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools and Richmond Public Schools all introduce legal studies to their students when they are in high school. This is understandable, since the majority of high school students enrolled in these courses are seniors who are 18, or not far from it. Therefore, the law will be applied to them as adults from this point forward.
It becomes essential for students, particularly seniors, to be educated on how the criminal justice system works. Unfortunately, this results in a limited understanding of how our system actually works.
Absent from these three school district’s high school curriculum regarding the criminal justice system is one of the biggest elephants in the room for the state of Virginia: the death penalty. With Virginia having executed more people than any other state, how are we preparing our high school graduates to deal intelligently with this controversy?
Death is indeed different, but it does not have to be excluded from the classroom because of its controversy. School districts do not shy away from controversial material such as sex education and scientific theories, so why should students in Virginia be completely deprived of a subject with which their state has such a long history?
Teaching a basic understanding of how and why the death penalty exists in our society would not require a complete overhaul of social studies curricula because there is already a platform for it. As a matter of fact, Richmond Public Schools have a system in place that would promote a smooth introduction of the death penalty.
There are 15 days allocated for high school students in Richmond Public Schools to learn about civil rights. One of these days includes an analysis of the Fifth Amendment, its relevance, and a simplified case study based on an actual case in order for students to better comprehend the issues at stake. The chosen case for this section is Miranda v. Arizona, which ultimately resulted in the requirement that law enforcement officials inform suspects of their rights to remain silent and to obtain an attorney.
Although this lesson may cast an unfavorable light on the malpractices of law enforcement, the point is that students learn why the chosen case poses a problem to the Constitution and even more importantly, how our country responds to injustice. This same blueprint can be applied to incorporate lessons on the death penalty and produce the same desired results. In fact, it will be on par with one of VDOE’s goals for students to “evaluate information relating to the performance of public officials; and willing to hold those officials accountable.”
In a famous dissent from Justice Brennan, he accused the Supreme Court of being afraid to deliver too much justice if they opened the floodgates of litigation.
Let us then, in education, not fall victim to this same type of fear for the sake of avoiding controversy. Opening the floodgates of our social studies education will expand our students’ understanding of the Constitution, civil rights and legal procedures; thus enhancing their citizenship.
Perhaps an even bigger takeaway is that this will enlighten future generations of a subject they may be passionate about and inspire them to take.
Farulli is a senior at the College of William and Mary.