Mich. Judge Brings the Courtroom to the Classroom

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Judge Michael Martone's smile goes away when asked why he goes to middle and high schools in Michigan to show children the dangers of drinking and driving.

"Yvonne Wiggins is the reason why I do it," he answers. "I will never forget that night."

When he was an assistant state attorney in Florida back in 1983, Mr. Martone was called to the scene of a crash in which a pedestrian had been hit by a truck. He saw the 14-year-old victim, Yvonne Wiggins, taken away on life support to a hospital, where she later died, and watched the driver in a drunken rage blame the girl for the accident.

"She was just a child," the judge recalls. "She is the reason for it all."

When he was elected judge of the 52nd District Court in the Detroit suburb of Troy in 1992, he wanted to use his position to keep young people from ending up like the driver that night or Ms. Wiggins. "Unfortunately," Judge Martone said recently, "only when bad things happen do we [judges] do something. I wanted to figure out something we could do with schools."

So he took the courtroom to the classroom.

His Courageous Decisions program, begun in 1993, involved shifting a whole day's court proceedings--defendants, lawyers, victims, and of course, the judge--to a school, so that students could see firsthand the hard consequences of drunk driving, violence, and drug abuse.

Later, Judge Martone realized that an entire day was too much. One day, three years after the program began, the court docket ran light at the school, and he started talking to the students about what had happened in the legal proceedings.

That led to changes in the program: two to three cases per presentation, supplemented with video vignettes and a discussion session.

That formula worked, and Courageous Decisions has since reached out to more than 42,000 students and been copied by judges in 11 states.

Defendants Volunteer

The 52-year-old judge typically begins the program in his robe and tells the students that this is no longer a high school, this is the 52nd District Court. If they don't behave, he adds, they don't go to the principal--they must answer to him, and may end up spending Saturdays cleaning up at the courthouse.

He says he picks cases that deal with situations students may find themselves in: drinking and driving, shoplifting, and fights. Often, the students watch as a convicted criminal is handcuffed and taken to jail directly from the school.

Defendants volunteer to participate in the school presentation. "There is an element of punishment standing up in front of 250 kids and being handcuffed," and that may help the defendants stay out of trouble, the judge said.

For the video portion of the one-hour presentation, he said, "I roll up my sleeves, loosen my tie, and coach the kids." He uses different clips depending on the topic: news clips and dramatizations of speeding accidents, drunk-driving accidents, inhalant use, alcohol poisoning, and violence.

Graphic Images

Judge Martone was in Washington last month to give a presentation for the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration. In it, he showed a video clip of a man who hit a car and killed three young girls and their mother on Christmas Eve.

The judge came to Washington hoping to gain support from NHTSA and the U.S. Department of Transportation for his program.

"It's a good start," Garry Criddle, an emergency-medical-services specialist for NHTSA, said of the program. "His mission is the same as ours. It's another tool to do outreach with and an effective one."

The judge leaves his courthouse in Troy to visit schools about three times a month, and changes his presentations frequently. For one session, he brought in a man who designs wheelchairs for quadriplegics. Students tested the chair, moving it back and forth by breathing into a tube.

Some school administrators are surprised by the harshness of his presentation and the graphic details. "It was so graphic and real, and I thought, 'Oh my gosh, have I exposed these kids to too much?' " said Estralee Michaelson, the director of safe and drug-free schools for the Farmington district in a Detroit suburb. But when she asked the middle schoolers at the end of the program, they told her they could handle it.

Steve Peterson, who will be an 8th grader this fall at O.E. Dunckel Middle School in Farmington, said he found much to learn from the judge's visit.

He said the dramatic accounts portrayed in the video clips were the most impressive part of the presentation. "The stories were good," recalled the 12-year-old. "Everyone in the room was crying."

'It Could Be Them'

Though he has been recognized at national judicial conferences and by organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Judge Martone says his biggest supporters are the students and the schools.

"It's real people. It's not a videotape," said Stuart Redpath, the principal at Smith Middle School in Troy, where Judge Martone held court one day last spring. "The accidents he shows on the video talk about youngsters that look like they do, come from the same neighborhood, and act like they do. It could be them."

Antoinette Burke, the principal of Boulan Park Middle School in Troy, agrees that this type of presentation is what students need. "There are a lot of programs out there, but none touch on the actual consequences like this one does," she said.

More information on the Courageous Decisions program is available by calling (248) 526-6700.

Vol. 18, Issue 43, Page 14

Published in Print: August 4, 1999, as Mich. Judge Brings the Courtroom to the Classroom
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