Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Empowered youth serving up justice

Hood County Teen Court provides students with real-world law experience

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Since 2011, a local peer-to-peer court has put justice in the hands of teens — allowing Hood County students to learn the inner workings of a courtroom while also practicing their speaking and critical thinking skills.

Hood County Teen Court was first implemented by the Hood County Substance Abuse Council to offer teens a second chance at a clean record following a Class C misdemeanor citation.

“Teen Court is real, actual court for teenagers,” said Shyller Byrom, Granbury High School debate teacher. “Those kiddos go to their Justice of the Peace and plead guilty to their ticket, and then depending on who their judge is or what the ticket was for, they sometimes are offered the opportunity to do Teen Court. If they do choose to do Teen Court, it's a benefit for them because it doesn't go on their record.”

Byrom explained that each case is then put on the docket and her debate class will interview the teen to get a better understanding of what occurred before her students present the case to a jury — also consisting of teenagers.

Typically, two students from Byrom's debate class will serve as prosecutors and two students will serve as defendants for each case.

"Sometimes they will swap around,” she said. “I may have eight kids that are serving as attorneys, but usually it's just four and they may flip flop back and forth. But as I have a bunch of new freshmen that want to get in the rotation, we will put them with a varsity person and sort of tutor them into the system, so I may have several kids in the rotation that evening that are gonna be in the chair at any given time.”

Byrom explained that her debate students do not have to serve in Teen Court, but several choose to — especially if they wish to pursue a law degree in the future.

“We do it as volunteer service,” she explained. “We do take a little bit of class time to interview clients, but it's not really a requirement for the class (itself).”

Hood County Teen Court takes place on the third Thursday of every month at 6 p.m. in the Ralph H. Walton, Jr. Justice Center, with as many as five cases taking place in the courtroom on that day.

Class C misdemeanors in Teen Court can range anywhere from a traffic violation, like speeding or driving without a license, to minor possession of an illegal substance or alcohol.

Byrom said the program is mainly for students in high school, although one time a 13-year-old had to go to Teen Court for shining a laser at a helicopter.

“Back in the day (we) used to (have cases involving) truancy, but now the law has changed so kids don't get truancy tickets anymore; their parents get the ticket," she said. “We don't get to have those anymore, but those were interesting.”

Following the presentation of the case — with both the prosecution side and the defendant side getting to ask the defendant questions — members of the jury will head to another room to decide on the verdict.

Sentences for the defendant include community service hours and a requirement to serve as a future juror. Community service hours can range anywhere from six to 60 for each offense. Community service work sites must also be picked from the list of approved community partners.

Byrom explained that students with a serious offense could receive more community service hours in the verdict, along with a requirement to serve as a juror more than once.

“We have a chart, but (it all depends) on the level of offense,” she said. “In addition to the community service, these defendants have to come back and sit on the jury again. They're paying it back, so they get to be on the other side, and see what it feels like to be in that jury room."

While the prosecutors, defendants, and jury are all teenagers in Teen Court, the JPs in each precinct take turns serving as judges for the cases, while the constables rotate in serving as bailiffs and security.

Teen Court is especially beneficial for students who want to become attorneys in the future, like Granbury High School senior Katie Morrison, who’s been involved in the program for three years.

“I joined the debate team, and I thought it was so cool, because I was convinced my whole life I was going to be a lawyer,” she said. “My first time I was on the prosecution, and I loved it so much, I still do prosecution every time.”

Morrison said she loves serving as a prosecutor because it allows her to be “the bad guy” without any social repercussions.

"It's a mock trial, and most people — if not everybody — at some point goes to court, whether they're behind the stand, or they're on the jury,” she said. “I think the most important part is the jury because although it is fun to be an attorney, the jury is actually just random people as it would be in real life, so they get to learn that, and they get to experience it.”

She added that Teen Court is a great way to get service hours and it prepares students for the real world.

"I feel as if politics in law has become so demonized, but then you get in there and it's like, ‘This really isn't so bad,’” Morrison said.

GHS sophomore Lexi Scarpello has been involved with Teen Court for about a year now; her passion to become a lawyer is what inspired her to volunteer to be on the jury for her first case.

"I really enjoyed it, so I try to (volunteer for Teen Court) every time,” she said.

Unlike Morrison, Scarpello said she normally chooses to serve as the defense attorney.

“I think defense is a lot of fun, because the clients already pled guilty, so everyone is going in with a preconception in their mind that that person is in the wrong,” Scarpello explained. “I think it's more gratifying when you win the case or when the case slants your way, because everybody there is already thinking that they want to give the maximum sentence when they walk in, so I think it's fun to have everyone there against you.”

Scarpello said through Teen Court, she has learned how the legal system works and how to expand her speaking and social skills.

"You do have to give a speech in front of a bunch of random people that you've never seen before,” she said. “It's definitely a little stressful, but it's really fun.”

Byrom said since she joined GHS in 2004, five of her debate students have gone on to pursue a law degree and career.

"As a debate coach, they're exercising their speaking skills, they're exercising their critical thinking skills, they're exercising their questioning skills,” she said.  "I love getting those phone calls, or those kids showing up at Christmas dinner and saying, ‘Guess what? I got my bar card!’”

She said rule number one for her students in the courtroom is: don’t ask a question you don’t already know the answer to.

"Don't ask questions that are unfriendly to your client, or that will not accomplish your goal,” Byrom said. “If you're on defense, and you know that your client has failed a grade or makes bad grades in school, you wouldn't want to ask them that question because that's gonna make them look bad and that's your client; you're trying to protect your client. Prosecutors also need to ask leading questions, and that's a skill, remembering to frame the question. ‘You knew the speed limit, didn't you?’ ‘You've driven this road before, haven't you?’ Those kinds of questions are leading questions and prosecution needs to be asking those questions, so that's something that we practice a lot.”

Although many volunteers for Hood County Teen Court are from GHS, Byrom explained that any student in Hood County can serve as a lawyer or as a juror, including those who attend Tolar and Lipan ISDs.

“We really, really encourage our neighboring towns, like Tolar and Lipan, to send us jurors," she said. “I've had a couple of times when Tolar kids have come and been attorneys with us, so the whole thing is open to all of Hood County, and we want everybody to know that.”

To be eligible for Teen Court, students must be under the age of 18 or enrolled in high school or GED classes. They also must not be currently enrolled or have completed any Teen Court program previously.

A parent or guardian must also be present during all court proceedings.

For more information about Hood County Teen Court, visit hoodcosac.org/teen-court/ online.