PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Students at a south jersey high school are working to get justice for families of victims in civil rights cold cases, and students in Hightstown are hoping to change federal law.
The Hightstown high school’s- AP-government class is not only learning how the political system works, these students are now part of the process.
“We are trying to see if we can make a difference and provide justice to these victims’ families and right these wrongs,” says Aditya Shah, a senior in the class. He is one more than two dozen students who drafted the Cold Case Record Collection Act over the past two school years. The goal of the legislation is to make it easier for the public to access government agency documents in civil rights cold cases.
“The process is a very long and tedious,” says Shah, who says it took over a year for him to get a response from the government on a civil rights cold case Freedom of Information Act Request.
“It’s a just a travesty nothing has been done,” says Stuart Wexler, the social studies teacher at the school that came up with the idea for the bill. He says the Emmitt Till Act, which created the Civil Rights Cold Case Division, had a serious gap– those trying to solve murders could only get heavily redacted documents from the FBI leaving families without answers for decades.
“Our solution is to create an independent review board that would release the information in a way this is helpful to the public,” says Wexler.
He hoped for bi-partisan support on the bill, so put the students to work to gain allies in Congress and in the community. The students created a website called coldcaseact.com, and got national media coverage that convinced Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush to introduce the bill last month.
“I would explain why this bill is relevant to them,” says Cassie Sokoloff, a senior who traveled to Capitol Hill last week to lobby Congress.
“It was vert exciting and very cool…I had never been lobbying before,” she says.
The students now have two co-sponsors and an endorsement by the Congressional Black Caucus. Their goal is to more support from both inside and outside of Congress.
“I made like 4 calls to just the NAACP of Charleston alone,” says Sokoloff.
The work they are doing is a lesson that hopefully these active citizens will keep for a lifetime.
“Anyone can really make a change if they are passionate about it and want to do it,” says Shah.