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Kids Need the Rules of Life Now More Than Ever


In California, 14-year-olds can now be tried as adults if their crimes are egregious enough.

Kids can sue and be sued.

It is technically illegal for anyone under 18 to have sex.

Most kids have always wanted to know what the rules are, but now they need to know more than ever.

"We live in the most legally complex society in the history of the world," said Tom Nazario, a UC San Francisco law professor who delivers a "Street Law" program to 3,200 Bay Area high school students a year. He believes it doesn't make sense for young people to graduate from high school these days in a climate like this without knowing their rights and responsibilities.

In recent years, most kids have probably heard more about their rights than their responsibilities.

High-profile cases have illuminated their right to "divorce" their parents, for instance. California children older than 12 can also receive treatment for drug abuse, venereal disease, rape or alcoholism without parental notification. Pending high court decisions, girls can still obtain abortions without parental consent.

In many states (including Pennsylvania, excluding California), minors can open bank accounts depositing and withdrawing money without a parent's permission.

Moreover, in California, parents must support children until age 19 if they are still in high school and not self-supporting.

But some of their rights have been cut back as adults try to cope with the explosion of violent juvenile crime.

Many jurisdictions, for instance, have been experimenting with curfew laws in which kids cannot be out after, say, 10 p.m. without a parent's permission. Curfew laws are constantly being challenged, and even if a city has passed such an ordinance it may be not be in effect because of a court order. There is no state curfew law and rules vary from city to city.

Children should also realize that school officials have the right, with only few exceptions, to search school lockers for drugs, alcohol or weapons.

While possessing an ounce or more of marijuana is against the law, charges are increased to a felony if kids bring drugs on or near a school site. They can be sentenced to a year in the Youth Guidance Center and the felony will stay on their record, Nazario said.

Kids who bring guns to school run the risk of automatic expulsion.

For heinous crimes, including murder, some California children 14 or older are now being tried as adults. But they still are protected from the death penalty.

Nazario said most kids in his classes find rules about hate and crime less interesting than those about love and sex. Many are surprised to learn that legally in California, young people under 18 cannot consent to sex, even though, Nazario said, "we could be talking about Romeo and Juliet." Of course, the district attorney rarely prosecutes anyone unless parents are irate or a widespread age difference shocks public morality.

Any time one partner refuses to consent, it is rape. "Some kids will ask, what if they tricked me?" Nazario said. Any coercion that deprives the other person of their ability to consent can lead to a rape charge, he said.

Next on many kids' list of questions is, how can I divorce my parents?

In California, kids can become legally emancipated when they turn 18, join the military or get married (with their parents' permission), Nazario said. Otherwise, they have to be able to show they can support themselves, and--here's the real groaner--get their parents' permission.

The hard truth for many kids is that parents still have rights too. Most disappointing is that they can appropriate their children's earnings from a job. "When they make $80 a week, parents can actually take their money if they wanted to, and can show they need it," Nazario said.

Unless, of course, the kids have opened a numbered bank account in Pennsylvania.

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