The New Jersey state Assembly on Thursday passed a bill that would require schools to teach children how to interact with police "in a manner marked by mutual cooperation and respect."
Assembly bill A1114 passed in the Assembly 76-0, according to the New Jersey State Legislature’s Office of Legislative Services. It must still be passed by the Senate, the office said.
The bill mandates that school districts start teaching kids how to talk to law enforcement officers starting in kindergarten, and would continue instruction all the way through grade 12 as part of the social studies curriculum. If it become law, the program would begin in the state's schools starting in 2018.
When the legislation was first introduced for the 2016 session, critics said it appeared to place the onus for police interactions largely on kids — mandating only that children be taught "the role and responsibilities of a law enforcement official in providing for public safety; and an individual’s responsibilities to comply with a directive from a law enforcement official."
An amended version of the bill now requires that schoolchildren also be taught about "an individual’s rights under law in interacting with a law enforcement official."
In addition, it now states that the Department of Education must work with an advisory committee in order to create the curriculum. That committee includes many of the same groups that make up Newark's Civilian Complaint Review Board, a police oversight project.
But that's not convincing some activists who say children shouldn't be the ones being taught accountability amid heightened scrutiny over controversial police shootings of African-Americans and other minorities.
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New Jersey-based teacher and activist Zellie Imani told NBC News before the bill was passed by the Assembly Thursday that he finds the proposed school program "victim-blaming."
"This legislation does not empower young people, especially those living in brown and Black communities," Imani said. "Instead, it empowers law enforcement by allowing them to continue to evade accountability for abuse and misconduct while forcing the burden on the public."
The bill's primary sponsor, New Jersey Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, said before the bill was passed that the program isn't about putting the responsibility on kids — it's about preparing them.
"The number of police related shootings around the nation have created a mistrust of police in many communities. This can help rebuild the trust that is essential for law enforcement to work," Oliver said.
"This is a lesson many parents already teach to their children," Oliver said, referring to police interaction. "Making it part of the school curriculum is the next logical step."
Similar programs have been proposed in other states. In early June, the governor of Texas signed a new law, Senate Bill 30, that mandates high schools teach "certain public school students" how to interact with police. That law also requires law enforcement officers to undergo civilian interaction training, and adds information about how to interact with law enforcement during traffic stops to driver's education materials.
For Jared Ware, host of the Beyond Prisons podcast, the concept of putting more police in schools seems potentially dangerous — not to mention confusing to some kids.
"I have seen 6 and 8 year old students who've witnessed their parents taken away by police and by ICE agents be forced by their school to sit through sessions where cops explain how to be respectful toward them," Ware said.
The controversy raises the question: Should we be teaching kids how to interact peacefully with police, or should we be teaching police how to interact peacefully with civilians?
According to Portia Allen-Kyle, the Pratt Criminal Justice Transparency Fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the answer is not one of the other. The ideal scenario would be to offer more instruction to law enforcement officers, she said, but in lieu of that, teaching kids about their rights is better than not preparing them at all.
"Knowing your rights helps you to know when they are violated," Allen-Kyle said. She said the amended version of New Jersey's bill was a great improvement on the earlier draft. "Originally it was a bill that instructed students to comply with police without really paying attention to their rights," she said.
Kids, especially very young children in kindergarten and first grade, could misunderstand what they are being taught about police, Allen-Kyle said. She was relieved to see the ACLU and other community groups (the NAACP and Institute for Social Justice, for example) on the curricular advisory board — but noted that work on the curriculum would likely not begin until the bill is passed.
The ACLU of New Jersey is keeping a close watch on a number of similar legislative proposals that relate to civilian interaction with police, including another bill that would teach prospective drivers how to behave with law enforcement during a traffic stop.
But Allen-Kyle said the driver education proposal — now being considered in a handful of states — does little to educate law enforcement officers. That's a problem, since many of the state bills are being touted as a way to lower the rates of police shootings and brutality.
"Placing the onus on individuals, whether it be students or drivers, to take responsibility for their safety during police interactions is, frankly, ridiculous," she said.
Mary Emily O'Hara
Mary Emily O'Hara is a freelance journalist living in Portland, Oregon. Her news and culture writing has been published by NBC News, Rolling Stone, MTV News, The Daily Beast, Teen Vogue, and more.