“Don’t hold a grudge. Take it to the judge.”
This has become the motto for the 7th and 8th graders in Carmella Williams Scott’s law class at the Fairmount Alternative School in Newnan, Georgia. As a part of the class, students participate in mock trials. Regretfully, the court room is a familiar setting to Scott’s students-many of them have been placed at Fairmount because of chronically disruptive behavior, gang-related activity, or criminal offenses. But Scott’s make- believe justice system gives students a chance to experience the view from the other side of the bench, as lawyers and judges. “I wanted to prove that these children could do some positive things,” Scott says. “My hidden agenda has been to help students build character.”
Scott’s trials aren’t scripted. Students learn to give opening and closing arguments, question witnesses, and raise objections. They develop practical and critical thinking and writing skills by researching cases on the Internet, creating depositions, and preparing case briefs. “I’m teaching these students to use their minds as weapons instead of guns,” the teacher says.
Until this year, Scott also ran a schoolwide program called Juvenile Video Court TV, which aimed to teach Fairmount’s grade 7 through 12 students how to deal with conflict. If a disagreement occurred between any of the 127 kids at the school, they could file a complaint and get a court date to appear before a jury of their peers. Students then settled the matter in a simulated courtroom during a 50-minute class period, with kids assuming every role from bailiff to judge. Though that program is currently on hiatus, Scott has incorporated many of its lessons into her law class.
The veteran teacher humbly credits God and her family-she has two children with husband Cornelius, a school principal and lawyer-as her source of strength. After teaching English for 14 years and serving as an administrator for five in various school districts in Georgia, Scott began teaching at Fairmount in 1995. She quickly realized that she needed to find a way to reach her troubled students. Creating the law course became a means for her to shed some light on the judicial system and the consequences of violent behavior. To make sure that her students received the best information, Scott even enrolled at the John Marshall Law School in Atlanta in 1996. “What I learned in law school at night, I taught the next day in class,” she recalls.
As far as Scott is concerned, her law class is much more than a place to earn a grade. “I’ve turned criminal thinkers into critical thinkers,” she says.
--Karen L. Abercrombie