Hightstown High students see efforts succeed with signing of federal law


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For Oslene Johnson, it was the thought that the families of the victims of more than 100 racially motivated murders would never know much about the incidents – except that their loved ones had been killed.

But the survivors and other interested individuals will have access to much more information about the 113 “cold cases” – unsolved murders – that occurred between 1940 and 1980 because of the efforts of some Hightstown High School students.

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Johnson and her schoolmates spent three years crafting the federal Civil Rights Cold Case Collection Act, which was signed into law in January by President Donald Trump. The law focuses on incidents that coincided with the civil rights movement.

The new law is the first federal law to have been created and pushed through the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives by high school students, said Hightstown High School history teacher Stuart Wexler.

The law is patterned after the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992.

The 113 unsolved cases were reopened in 2008 under the federal Emmett Till Act, but all of them were closed by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2015 without having been solved.

The Cold Case Act, as the new law is informally known, calls for the FBI and other federal agencies to provide copies of civil rights cold case files to the National Archivist within two years. Nothing in the records may be blacked out or changed.

A five-member review panel will determine whether any information should be withheld if an agency claims certain information cannot be released to the public. The panel will be appointed by the president.

Johnson, who was a student in Wexler’s Advanced Placement government class, said the push to open up the cold cases was taking place at about the same time the Black Lives Matter movement was getting under way.

“There were a lot of polarizing discussions about racial violence during the civil rights era and that sparked the need for action,” said Johnson, who is black. “You look back and try to heal the wounds. It was personal. It was disheartening and sad.”

Those 113 cold cases, and thinking about the families that were affected by them, drove Johnson to work with her classmates to create and push for the new law.

Opening the records may lead to finding out whether an individual was killed as a hate crime or for exercising their rights, Johnson said. Relatives do not know the motive or all of the circumstances surrounding the murder, but they will know now, she said.

Meanwhile, Wexler said he has been interested in the racial and political violence that occurred in the 1960s and brought up the topic to his AP government students.

“I had been frustrated by the lack of access (to government records),” Wexler said.

To reinforce the point, he asked his students to file federal Freedom of Information Act requests about specific cases. They, too, were stymied by the lack of access.

Once the students realized how tragic and unjust it was for the victims’ families to be denied information, they began to work, guided by Wexler, to address the issue. That was the genesis of the legislation they wanted to write and have adopted, he said.

Quite possibly, Wexler said, a case could be solved by combing through unredacted records and files. Maybe the answer lies in an obscure comment in a file, and so maybe some of the 113 cold cases that had been closed by the Department of Justice could be resolved, he said.

Wexler pointed to a woman who spent 30 years in libraries trying to find out why her father was killed. If the new law works as it should, she ought to be able to find the information in months, not years, he said.

It was not an easy task to draft the federal legislation, to find lawmakers to sponsor it and to have it approved and signed into law, Wexler said. The students did not have “gobs of money” or high-priced lobbyists to help them push it through the system, he said.

“Hundreds of millions of students have gone through the American school system, but only 80 of them have ever written a bill that became a federal law,” Wexler said of the students who passed through his classes since the effort was conceived in 2015.

Johnson, who is one of the 80 students, said the big lesson for her was the power of youth activism, regardless of whether they were old enough to vote. She said she wanted to see changes made and to take part in it politically.

That lesson has not been lost on younger children, Wexler said, recounting the reaction of a fourth grade student at the Grace Norton Rogers Elementary School after watching a video about the Cold Case Act.

“The little girl said that when she gets older, she is going to change the world, too, and that’s another reason why we did this,” Wexler said.

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