Their Day In Court

March 01, 1991 5 min read

In Chicago, for example, schools team up with the Cook County court system to teach elementary and middle school children about the litigation process. The Circuit Court Fairy Trials program, developed in 1986 by Julie Miller, the court’s public relations director, employs student juries and fairy tales that have been rewritten as modern-day plays. Each tale highlights particular legal questions. Several times a week during the school year, professional actors perform the plays. At the end of each performance, the students, acting as jurors, must decide whether Rumpelstiltskin is entitled to breach-ofcontract damages and whether Hansel and Gretel’s father should be charged with child neglect and abuse.

So far, more than 50,000 Cook County schoolchildren have seen the plays.

Miller, a former high school English teacher, thinks fairy tales are the perfect vehicle for lessons on ethics, morality, and the law. “Most fairy tales contain good-vs.-evil struggles, which fit easily into a legal context,’' Miller explains. “The children really identify with the characters, and they have very strong views on right and wrong.’'

Betty Greer, who has taken several middle school classes to the plays over the past several years, agrees. “The kids were very involved,’' she says. “They came away with a much better understanding of the court system and legal terminology.’' Greer, who recently left classroom teaching to become a principal, plans to bring the program to her new school.

Miller says she thinks the program is accomplishing its goal. “We don’t claim to prevent delinquency,’' she says, “but we are building public confidence in a positive way.’'

Building confidence in the law through participation is also a goal of Legal Outreach, a New York City program for junior high school students. According to James O’Neal, a lawyer who founded the program eight years ago, many innercity children are very skeptical and cynical about the legal system. “We want to teach them to use the legal system to improve the quality of life within their own communities,’' O’Neal says.

Notes Carolyn Foy, an 8th grade social studies teacher who was one of the first to bring Legal Outreach to students: “There was, and is, a real need for it.’'

The first part of the program centers on a specially designed curriculum, Law and Social Problems, taught by 12 junior high teachers at the four schools that participate in Legal Outreach. Students discuss hypothetical scenarios to learn how the law applies to various situations and to discover what resources are available to help people in their community.

After completing the curriculum, 64 students are chosen for a five-night mock-trial competition hosted by Columbia University’s School of Law. The students form four prosecution and four defense teams and are coached by law students. Attorneys and Bronx Supreme Court justices judge the performances and name the most credible team the winner.

Before participating in the program, O’Neal says, many students believe that the deck is always stacked against the defense. But, he says, as they learn about the legal process, “they realize that the defense has an equal opportunity. They come away with a stronger sense that the law is fair and just.’'

Students find the program itself fascinating, and what they learn may come in handy later. “All of my students are tenants,’' Foy says, “and someday they are going to give some landlord a fit.’'

For many of the participants, their involvement with law doesn’t end when the program is over. The 64 students who participate in the mock trials, for example, are eligible for a summer law institute offered by Legal Outreach or an internship in the office of New York City’s corporation counsel or the Manhattan district attorney’s office. The 16 students chosen for these spots can attend Saturday grammar and writing classes offered by Legal Outreach, and they qualify for additional internships.

As a result of the program, Foy says, some of her students have selected high schools that offer lawrelated classes, and a few are even pursuing law careers in college.

Students in Gary, Ind., also have the chance to take part in courtroom deliberations, but the decisions they make affect real-life law breakers. The program, known as the Lake County Teen Court, was created to relieve the overloaded juvenile court system and to give student volunteers--325 so far since the court opened in January 1990--the opportunity to work as attorneys, jurors, bailiffs, and clerks.

The court functions under the supervision of only one adult, Carmen Fernandez, an attorney who volunteers as Teen Court judge. Any first-time juvenile offender who admits to having committed a minor offense, such as shoplifting or vandalism, and who agrees to abide by the sentence of a peer jury can opt for a Teen Court trial. If these offenders successfully complete the sentence handed down, their police record is wiped clean. There is one other proviso, however: Each offender must agree to serve on a Teen Court jury.

Judge Fernandez says the students “have really taken the court to heart and adopted it as their very own.’' She notes that she rarely needs to intervene. “The punishments they order are very logical and fair,’' she says. Typical sentences include apology letters, essays, community service work, and counseling.

In fact, Fernandez says, the jurors tend to be stricter and more “parental’’ than she would be. And they often advise the guilty person to communicate more with their parents and not to bend to peer pressure.

The offenders, says Sandra Porter, the Teen Court coordinator, “really seem to be responding to their peers.’' Recidivism is low: During the first six months of the program, only three of the 35 offenders sentenced got in trouble with the law again.

And Fernandez believes the handson experience will have a lasting, positive effect on the participating students, as well. “Teachers can take students to a courtroom and discuss what they saw,’' she says. “But I don’t think it’s the same thing as actually being a participant in the proceedings.’'---Lisa Wolcott

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as Their Day In Court