Know Your Rights. It’s important for your safety. And, knowing your rights is not enough to protect you, your friends, your child, or your family from harm.

Knowledge alone cannot protect us– and, in many situations, informed action can. Informed action grows from the powerful combination of knowledge plus skill, along with the confidence to use them together effectively in potentially dangerous situations when we need to act quickly under stress.

Because the safety of their children is so often adults’ primary concern, this article explores this topic from a parent/caregiver perspective with the understanding that adults can consider how the concepts apply to their own safety, too.

Adults often worry more about their kids. Both deserve to be safe.

Many adults worry about themselves or their loved ones ending up in situations where their rights are violated and they are injured, unjustly incarcerated, killed, or harmed in other ways. Though people of all ages experience these harms, it’s common for adults to say that the safety of their young people is often their top priority.

For example, immigrant parents are likely to be targets of prejudice-based violence yet often say they are worried about their children’s well-being more than their own. Adults who have faced years of discrimination as a result of their religion or ethnicity are often focused on protecting and preparing their children – while they also deserve to be safe and also to have confidence in the greatest possible range of strategies to protect themselves. Parents of children who have disabilities; who are transgender or gender diverse; or who are neurodiverse, are acutely aware of dangers their children face as a result of how others perceive them – risks that they, themselves, may not face directly. At the same time, they, too, could end up in a situation where their own safety or rights may be violated.

For generations in the United States as well as in other countries, countless parents and caregivers in Black and Latin communities have had, and continue to have, acute, lifelong awareness of the dangers their young people face after centuries of racial injustice and systemic oppression. They experience profound fear and anxiety when their children go out – fear and anxiety that are unlikely to lessen no matter how many skills they practice with their children. The practice is still important; it is something parents and caregivers CAN control in the context of so many things they cannot control.

Misuse of power is unjust. We might still be harmed. And, we practice safety anyway.

In situations that involve people’s rights, people in positions of power and authority are almost always involved. They might be directly involved in the situation – such as, a law enforcement officer detaining someone. Or they might seem more indirectly involved even if their use of power has direct, unjust effects – such as a court officer or school administrator issuing judgements differently in ways that seem to be reflecting prejudice about types of identity.

It’s important to acknowledge openly to ourselves and to our kids how unfair, unjust, infuriating, offensive, and just plain wrong it is that these injustices happen and that people have to make safety plans to protect themselves as a result.

It’s not at all fair, right, or appropriate that people should have to live in fear of systems that are supposed to offer equal protection. Unless and until policies and practices protect everyone equally, people do not have true justice or safety.

At the same time, precisely because these situations pose such risk to someone who may be isolated and on their own, with no one else there to protect them or with power to protect them, it’s all the more important to know what IS in our power to do – and feel prepared to do it.

Discussing risks and strategies is important - and, talking doesn’t build skills.

Adults often have clear ideas of what they want kids in their care to know or do to be as safe as possible in situations where their rights may be violated and people in positions of authority may not be using their power safely. Most adults are very comfortable discussing and explaining what they want kids to do. For example:

An adult concerned about youth knowing their rights with police might explain the importance of knowing phrases like, “I do not consent to a search,” and “Am I free to go?” They might discuss the importance of tone of voice, of keeping hands open and visible, and many other details they want young people to remember.

An adult concerned about youth knowing their rights with immigration agents might explain the importance of specific phrases like, “Do you have a warrant?” and “I choose to remain silent.” They might discuss the importance of being able to identify an authentic warrant, of knowing which documents must be produced upon request, or not opening the door and inviting people into the home – among many other details they want young people to remember.

An adult concerned about youth knowing their rights at school regarding religious identity might explain many topics, including that youth have the right to wear religious clothing and to speak to others about their religion as long as it is not done in a disruptive manner. They might also discuss the importance of putting safety first when they are experiencing bullying – or options in situations where adults are misusing power, such as preventing students from having ‘release time’ to attend religious services.

An adult concerned about youth who are LGBTQ+ knowing their rights at school might explain many concepts including the importance of reporting harassment to a principal or counselor. They might explain that school officials do not have the right to threaten to “out” students – or to tell them that they have to change how they dress or act in order to address the harassment.

In all of these conversations, discussing information can build understanding, but it does not build skills. In addition, talking without practicing can build fear and anxiety – and using the skills we already DO have is harder when we’re overwhelmed with fear or anxiety.

People in safety situations are more likely to do what they practiced.

Practice builds skills. Positive, solutions-based practice is also more likely to build confidence while reducing fear.

Practice can also make it easier to take action in the moment, even when we are feeling scared, angry, or upset. In dangerous situations, it’s normal to be exploded with feelings like fear or anger. This can make it hard to think clearly – and more likely that we will make choices we’re unhappy about later.

We can reduce this risk by practicing centering strategies, emotional regulation strategies, and safety strategies in a calm, positive way with young people.

Kidpower leaders globally are committed to using the Kidpower Positive Practice Teaching Method™ – and to encouraging all adults to use it in their safety communication with young people – because of its effectiveness in developing skills and confidence without using fear or anxiety as a motivator.

The Kidpower Positive Practice Teaching Method™ includes creating solutions-based practices that adults and young people act out together. The adult uses step-by-step coaching, rather than testing, to help and support the young people to experience success actually using the skills we want them to learn. Coaching safety skills like this can help young people learn not just what their rights are but also how they can take informed action to claim and protect those rights – and their physical and emotional safety.

Practicing together also helps adults see whether young people truly understood their explanations. When you practice together, you’ll notice details about things like tone, word choice, or gestures – seemingly small things that could spark bigger problems. You then have an opportunity to coach them so that you both have the same understanding of what the safety skill actually looks like and sounds like.

Skills you can practice right away to protect and empower yourself and others.

We encourage adults to coach young people every step of the way so that they are successful applying the skills you want them to learn. After explaining what you want them to know about their rights and risks, lead role-plays coaching what you want them to know how to do to protect themselves in those situations. These skills might include:

• Practicing how to project awareness, calm, and respectful confidence.

• Practicing stating and restating key phrases, without adding unnecessary words

• Practicing how to make a report to school officials

• Practicing tone of voice to communicate powerfully and respectfully.

• Practicing how to see and assess a warrant produced by immigration agents without opening the door. Will it slide under the door? Is there a window you can look through? Where should you find a signature?

• Practicing speech and movement you want youth to use when retrieving documents you tell them they must produce to officials upon request, such as a driver’s license when pulled over

• Practicing listening respectfully to requests for documents or personal information you teach them they do NOT have to produce simply upon request – and NOT giving them, while remaining calm and respectful

• Practicing how to STOP TALKING after saying what is needed in situations with law enforcement, other than perhaps to repeat the original phrase, such as or “I choose to remain silent.”

• Practicing how to assess what kinds of situations or questions might or might not be safe to answer. See the list of resources for professional guidance about the types of questions that might cause a problem.

• Practicing not responding to questions that might be potentially unsafe to answer even when someone, including emergency responders, is acting friendly, helpful, or kind.

• Practicing keeping their hands relaxed, free, and visible throughout – when talking with officials as well as when seeking help from strangers in public

Remind young people that practicing these skills is part of emergency preparedness. It does NOT mean that you believe these situations are their fault; that you think community safety is the responsibility of young people to uphold; or that you think the social problems that give rise to these kinds of situations are fair, just, or within their power to fix as individuals. Practicing together is a way to tell kids you believe they deserve knowledge and skill to be prepared to take informed action on their own in this kind of emergency.

The truth is, even the most knowledgeable and skilled person can be greatly harmed by individuals, organizations, or structures misusing or abusing power. While practicing these skills can reduce your risks, this cannot guarantee safety. Acknowledge the truth that they might “do everything right” – and things might get worse anyway.

At Kidpower, we remind our students of all ages that we don’t have the power to choose how others use their power. We can choose how we use our own power, and we deserve to know how to use it in ways that are likely to increase safety and quality of life. Kids deserve to know that, no matter what, you love them and believe in them – and in their right to be legally, emotionally, and physically safe.

KIDPOWER’S COMMITMENT TO SAFETY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL: At Kidpower, we believe that everyone has the right to safety, respect, peace, and justice. We are heartbroken about the suffering and tragedy caused by racist attacks and discrimination against people of color in our communities, at our borders, and around the world. We will continue to speak out and take action to protect and empower all people.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

CIVIL RIGHTS ORGANIZATIONS

The following nonprofit organizations are among those with established reputations in the US for promoting and protecting civil rights through advocacy and education, often tailored to meet the needs of specific communities facing distinct challenges unique to their life situations. Please let us know if we have missed one you believe should be on this list!

Take charge of your safety by accessing resources you trust in order to #KnowYourRights – and then, #PracticeSafety so you and your loved ones are truly prepared to act in ways that protect those rights – and protect your safety!

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

Anti-Defamation League (ADL)

Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC)

Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)

Human Rights Campaign (HRC)

Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund

National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) including their California specific publication Queer & Trans Youth in California Foster Care Have Rights: A Know Your Rights Guide, prepared in collaboration with Out of Home Youth Advocacy Council and California Youth Connection

National Disability Rights Network

Native American Rights Fund

Southern Poverty Law Center

Sylvia Rivera Law Project

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Published: November 16, 2017   |   Last Updated: August 6, 2020

Erika Leonard manages our California center, trains and mentors instructors, and is a Kidpower Senior Program Leader.


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