Legal Mobilization in Schools: The Paradox of Rights and Race Among Youth


  • Authorship of this article is fully collaborative. First and foremost, our thanks go to the students, teachers, administrators, and other persons who participated in this study and facilitated access to schools. Audiences at the following venues provided useful comments on earlier drafts of this article: Conference on Empirical Legal Studies, University of Southern California Law School; Hastings School of Law, San Francisco; American Sociological Association annual meetings, San Francisco; Berkeley Empirical Legal Studies Conference, School of Law, University of California, Berkeley; School of Education and Department of Sociology, Stanford University; Center for the Study of Law and Society, University of California, Berkeley; Law & Society Association annual meetings, Montreal; and the Conference on the Paradoxes of Race, Law, and Inequality in the United States, University of California, Irvine. The National Science Foundation, Spencer Foundation, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, and other private foundations provided financial support for this research. We thank all the members of the School Rights Project team, especially Melissa Velez and Doreet Preiss, for their research assistance on the quantitative analyses; and Catherine Bell, Joseph Christoff, Jessica Hardy, Yuki Kato, Gerald Lackey, Leah Reich, Eva Ruiz, and Meagan Theil, for their qualitative fieldwork and analyses. For their comments, we thank Catherine Albiston, Kitty Calavita, Prudence Carter, Elisabeth Clemens, Malcolm Feeley, Stephen Galoub, Laura Gómez, Tristin Green, Antoinette Hetzler, Eric Ishiwata, Valerie Jenness, Robert Kagan, Gwendolyn Leachman, Ian Haney López, Robert MacCoun, Anna-Maria Marshall, Justin McCrary, Michael Musheno, Laura Beth Nielsen, Robert Nelson, Walter Powell, James Rule, Katheryn Russell-Brown, Marc Schneiberg, W. Richard Scott, Richard Shavelson, Susan Silbey, Sarah Song, Stephen Sugarman, Geoff Ward, and, from the Law & Society Review, editor Carroll Seron and three reviewers. Finally, we thank the American Bar Foundation for providing the School Rights Project team with meeting space in October 2007. Please address all correspondence to Calvin Morrill, Center for the Study of Law and Society, School of Law, University of California, Berkeley, 2240 Piedmont Ave., Berkeley, CA 94720; e-mail:


In this article, we analyze ethnoracial patterns in youth perceptions and responses to rights violations and advance a new model of legal mobilization that includes formal, quasi-, and extralegal action. Slightly more than half of the 5,461 students in our sample reported past rights violations involving discrimination, harassment, freedom of expression/assembly, and due process violations in disciplinary procedures. Students, regardless of race, are more likely to take extralegal than formal legal actions in response to perceived rights violations. Self-identified African American and Latino/a students are significantly more likely than white and Asian American students to perceive rights violations and are more likely to claim they would take formal legal action in response to hypothetical rights violations. However, when they perceive rights violations, African American and Asian American students are no more likely than whites to take formal legal action and Latino/a students are less likely than whites to take formal legal action. We draw on in-depth interviews with youth and adults—which we interlace with our quantitative findings—to explore the interpretive dynamics underlying these survey findings, and we offer several theoretical and methodological implications of our work.