NJ students celebrate passage of civil rights bill they drafted, lobbied for

Cherri Gregg
January 10, 2019 - 1:36 pm
Hightstown High School students are shown in Washington, D.C., where they lobbied for passage of the Civil Rights Cold Case Record Collection Act.

Courtesy of Hightstown High School

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HIGHTSTOWN, N.J. (KYW Newsradio) — The AP government class at Hightstown High School in New Jersey is celebrating after spending three and a half years working on a federal bill intended to help victims of civil rights-era hate crimes. The Civil Rights Cold Case Record Collection Act became law earlier this week. 

"I was first somewhat shocked, and then shock became — I was elated," said Hightstown social studies teacher Stu Wexler.

KYW Newsradio first reported on Wexler back in 2017. By then, his AP government classes had spent two years drafting legislation and lobbying Congress to pass a bill that would create a review board to unseal and unredact information related to racially charged murders from the 1940s, '50s and '60s. The bill passed both houses of Congress with overwhelming support in December. Then, finally, on Tuesday night, Trump signed the bill into law. 

"I have all the students on a GroupMe," Wexler said, referring to the mobile group-messaging app. "And we were all just a GroupMe equivalent of freaking out in joy."

RELATED: High schoolers drafted, got support, lobbied to pass a civil rights bill

Days earlier, fearing the bill would die via "pocket veto," they began tweeting at the president and his popular influencers urging him to sign. The president signed shortly before his televised addresss from the Oval Office, issuing a signing statement expressing constitutional concerns that the act would compromise the executive privilige or a president's ability to approve the review board.

"We were surprised, because it was such a bipartisan bill," says Wexler, who notes that the bill received unanimous support in the U.S. Senate.  "I can understand where he is coming from, but we're hoping the president sees over time that this bill is of no threat to him."

He says the bill only applies to records prior to 1979 and does not include presidential papers.

In a video showing reaction to the signing, the students said: "It just felt like such an accomplishment."

Their hope is that the new law will give families of civil rights-era hate crimes answers, finally. "Just simply knowing a detail or two that they didn't know before," said one student.

The students believe they are the first high school class to take a federal bill to law.

Read more about the Cold Case Act