A high school government class wanted to help solve civil rights crimes. So they drafted a bill that is now law

Government students from Hightstown High School. "It was something we all saw as an extremely meaningful thing to do," said one student.

(CNN)They weren't born when the civil rights movement ended. Even many of their parents weren't alive then.

And yet a high school class in Hightstown, New Jersey, has found an impressive way to shed light on unsolved civil rights crimes from the 1950s and '60s.
The AP class, studying US government, drafted a bill that would create a board to review, declassify, and release documents related to such cases.
Then they went one step further.
    The students from Hightstown High School went to Washington, walked the halls of Senate office buildings and passed out folders with policy research and information about their bill, said former student Joshua Fayer.
    Their efforts caught the attention of Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois, who introduced the bill -- modeled after the JFK Assassination Records Act -- in March 2017.
    Later Sens. Doug Jones of Alabama and Ted Cruz of Texas signed on. The House and Senate versions of the bipartisan bill -- the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act -- passed late last year, and President Trump signed the bill into law on January 8 -- hours before it would expire in a pocket veto.
    "We were worried it would slip through the cracks. There was a lot going on -- it was mid-government shutdown," Fayer said.
    Teacher Stuart Wexler leads a student panel at Hightstown High School to discuss their work on the Cold Case Act.

    It began as an effort to make government more transparent

    Hightstown government teacher Stuart Wexler told CNN the project began in 2015, when he used the 1963 Birmingham Church Bombing as a way to teach the class about civil rights crimes.
    Former student Jay Vainganker said the class was initially trying to solve unresolved hate crimes from the era. They filed public records requests for information from the FBI and Department of Justice, and they got back redacted responses from the government. In some cases, entire pages were redacted.
    That's when their focus changed, Vaingankar said. They decided to draft a bill that would make the government "a little bit more transparent."
    "These documents were mainly redacted for national security concerns. For example, if someone is named a witness in a murder case, the FBI has interest in not letting that name get out because the witnesses can be targeted," Vaingankar said. "Where that logic falls apart is a lot of the witnesses have passed away, because these hate crimes happened a long time ago."
    The Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act creates "a board that would be authorized to look at these documents and see what should be redacted, what isn't relevant, what should be released," he said. The board would have the authority to release the documents.