The most-publicized, scrutinized event in the recent history of the St. Louis region is providing a unique learning opportunity for students at SLU LAW.
This spring, 25 SLU LAW students are taking a class called “Ferguson.”
Every Wednesday, students in the class have a different professor or guest speaker lecturing on a different legal topic that directly or indirectly relates to the August 9, 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
SLU LAW Assistant Professor Chad Flanders, who organized the Ferguson class, said he originally considered reserving a period of his regular criminal law class for discussing legal issues in Ferguson, but quickly determined one class period was not enough.
“Ferguson was an issue in itself with the shooting of Michael Brown. But the shooting revealed a whole host of other issues that were kind of beneath the surface,” Flanders said. “It was this whole big nest of legal issues kind of snarled together, and I think it was just wanting to separate them all and look at them individually to get a better handle on everything that is going on. I decided there is enough here to at least fill a whole semester.”
In the wake of Michael Brown’s death and the ensuing grand jury investigation, professors at SLU LAW were regular sources for local and national media on the myriad of legal issues relating to Ferguson – from questions of police conduct, to explanations of the grand jury process to examinations of the St. Louis County municipal court system. Flanders knew he couldn’t teach all of these issues on his own, so he began contacting his SLU LAW colleagues and asking if they’d be interested in teaching a section of the course based on their area of expertise.
“I certainly couldn’t have taught a whole class. We’re going from property law to municipal court systems and police officer qualifications,” Flanders said. “We just have a lot of different faculty that have expertise in these different areas. It was surprisingly easy to get everyone involved. Everyone said yes.”
Student interest in the class was high. Flanders said the class was originally capped at 15, but they had to continually raise it due to the demand before they decided on a limit of 25.
Associate Professor Sue McGraugh, who along with Flanders is a lead professor of the course, said Ferguson is a case study that allows students to learn from current events that are continuing to evolve throughout the semester.
“It really makes the law come to life when you can talk about laws and bills that people are offering in the Missouri legislature that directly impact what’s going on in Ferguson,” McGraugh said. “It just really shows law as a living breathing entity – something that grows and progresses and changes. That’s hard to do in a normal doctrinal law class.”
Students in the class are assigned various readings prior to each class that are related to the topic at hand, and throughout the semester students are assigned to write four papers that respond to the readings and the in-class speaker for a given week.
Third-year student Erica Mazzotti said she has been interested in events surrounding Ferguson from the outset through her involvement in the SLU LAW Legal Clinics’ call for municipal court reform. She said the class has exposed her to areas of law that she might not have otherwise sought out.
“I’ve never had a class like this before,” Mazzotti said. “There are a lot of different aspects of this class that give students a really diverse selection of information.”
In addition to the students in the class, SLU LAW professors are also using the class to expand their understanding of issues surrounding Ferguson. Flanders said through the first four weeks of the class there have regularly been five or six faculty members sitting in.
“That’s pretty rare. That just shows the extent of the interest in this,” Flanders said. “I’m really heartened that there are so many faculty coming.”
Though Ferguson started with a tragic event that magnified several problems that still exist in the region, McGraugh said SLU LAW’s proximity to Ferguson puts its students in a unique position.
“As terrible as the events were, this is really a pivotal time in our criminal justice system both locally and nationally,” McGraugh said. “The fact we are on the front line and that so many of our professors and students have been involved firsthand – I can’t imagine there will be another opportunity like this.”
Third-year student Christina Vogel, also a student in the Ferguson class, said Ferguson is literally close to home for her. Vogel grew up in Dellwood, Missouri, which borders Ferguson’s east side. She said the ongoing situation surrounding Ferguson is a constant reminder of why she decided to attend law school.
“It just makes you more aware that it is not a simple fix, but there are ways attorneys can make things better,” Vogel said. “Ferguson really reinforced what I got into law to do, which is to make the city better.”
Below is a breakdown of the lecturers and topics being discussed each week in the Ferguson class.
Wednesday, Jan. 14: Professor John Ammann – The Municipal Court System
Wednesday, Jan. 21: Professor Pete Salsich – Municipal Home Rule
Wednesday, Jan. 28: Professor Roger Goldman – Police Departments, Regulation and Reform
Wednesday, Feb. 4: Jane Darst, Beth Orwick – The Grand Jury
Wednesday, Feb. 11: Professor Chad Flanders – Law Enforcement Officer Use of Force
Wednesday, March 18: Professor Marcia McCormick – Civil Rights Suits
Wednesday, March 25: Professor Justin Hansford – Ferguson and Human Rights
Wednesday, April 1: Professor Steve Hanlon – Race and Criminal Law
Wednesday, April 8: Bill Freivogel – The Media and Ferguson
Wednesday, April 15: Professor Molly Wilson – Ferguson and Social Science
Wednesday, April 22: Concluding Roundtable Discussion
* Students were also required to attend the Jan. 12 Millstone Lecture and the Feb. 20 Public Law Review Symposium