How do you measure whether students have a well-rounded education that inspires them to do the hard work of research and creative problem solving?
I’d say their ability to envision legislation, draft it, meet with members of Congress, and get a bill passed by Congress and signed into law is an outstanding way to gauge their success. And you can’t measure that with a bubble test.
I am in awe of the students in Stuart Wexler’s AP government and politics class at Hightstown High School in New Jersey. Because of them, a new law will make records related to unsolved civil rights murders easier to access. As far as we know, they are the first high school students ever to get a law passed on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Wexler’s students have launched a GoFundMe to raise money for another trip to D.C., this time to lobby for an appropriation to fund their law. Without that, the law will become obsolete.
The students’ journey began in 2015 when Mr. Wexler, a member of the East Windsor Education Association, discussed with his class the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. This horrific act of domestic terrorism killed an 11-year-old, Carol Denise McNair, and three 14-year-olds: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. The four girls were changing into their choir robes for the Sunday service when their church was bombed.
(Stuart Wexler, far right, and his class in 2015)
The class discussion touched on how a reporter’s discovery of evidence led to successful prosecutions in the church bombing nearly 40 years later. Justice was many years delayed, but finally, it was no longer denied.
Mr. Wexler pointed out that there were more than 100 unsolved criminal civil rights cases. There were families of murdered black men and women that never learned all the facts about those murders. The Justice Department investigated the cases but because many of the witnesses and even perpetrators are now dead, the department closed the cases.
The students were frustrated when they found out how hard it was for heartbroken families to get information about their loved ones. Even if no one was ever brought to justice, they believed relatives had a right to know more about what happened.
Anna Trancozo, a college freshman who was in the first group of students to take on the issue, said: “Family members of some of the victims, that was what really hit home. A lot of the people are still alive and still living with what they went through.”
Mr. Wexler, author of Killing King: Racial Terrorism, James Earl Ray, and the Plot to Assassinate Martin Luther King, Jr. and other books, asked his students: “Should we try to do something?”
They did do something. And the result was the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018.
The students created a website. They reached out to Doug Jones, at the time the Alabama federal prosecutor. They knew of him because he prosecuted two of the former KKK members responsible for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.
They met with Congressional staff in D.C. and lined up co-sponsors. One of the students, Aditya Shah, had an opinion piece published in Politico.
Senator Jones was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2017, and he introduced their bill. (Yes, elections do have consequences.) He said that while we may never solve the cold cases, the law may “help us find some long-overdue healing and understanding of the truth.”
Once Congress passed the law in December, the students launched the next phase of their plan: Tweeting at Donald Trump and his influencers. Trump signed the bill into law in January. It requires the FBI and other agencies to give the national archivist copies of cold-case records within two years.
If agencies say a record must remain sealed, a presidentially appointed review board gets the final say.
What began in a classroom where students were fired up by a good question and thought-provoking discussion—and confident they could do something to change things—is now a law. That law will help bring peace to families aching for the full truth of how their loved ones died. But it does need funding.
Mr. Wexler’s goal for his students was ambitious, yet straightforward: “I want them to learn firsthand what the legislative process is like on the ground…not just the charts that you give them that show the stages.” He let the students know not only that he believed in them, but that they should believe in themselves.
Hightstown High School students have already made a difference. I can’t wait to see what they take on next.