Law Day gives students crash course in civics
More than 600 students and teachers from 14 schools across the county gathered at the Nevada County Superior Courthouse Friday to participate in the 15th annual Law Day, an event aimed at providing fifth-grade students some hands-on experience with the local judicial and criminal justice system.
“It’s a program we’ve been doing in conjunction with the Nevada County Superintendent of Schools office,” Court Executive Officer Sean Metroka said. “We do it to support the fifth-grade government curriculum. They have a U.S. government curriculum and the Law Day is really kind of like a public outreach for us to support the schools in the county.”
Law Day began in May 2000, as a collaboration between then Court Executive Officer Paula Carli and then Superintendent of Schools Terence K. McAteer. Metroka said the courthouse moved the event to September every year thereafter to coincide with the beginning of each school’s government and civics curriculum.
The program initially included a tour of the old jailhouse and a mock trial only, but expanded years later to include youth participants from juvenile drug court and local law enforcement officers.
“It is a wonderful opportunity for the students in our county to see local law enforcement and the legal system in a positive light,” Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Student Programs associate Melissa Parrett said. “It’s also become part of a coming-of-age field trip for the students in our community.”
Judge Thomas Anderson facilitated Friday’s mock trials which featured students playing the roles of the prosecutor, public defender, judge, clerk, court reporter and bailiff.
“You have all these fifth-graders and they get to see a lot of different aspects of the court and they really seem engaged and they really enjoy it, which is great because they get an appreciation for civics,” Judge Anderson said. “And it’s fun for us because we get people that are really excited, whereas most of the days the work we do is pretty solemn, from a day to day basis, so this is a great up beat event for us.”
During the mock trial, student juries were given the task of finding a verdict in the case of a stolen red bicycle, the defendants being their own teachers.
Cottage Hill Elementary School student Austin Metzger played the convincing role of the Assistant Deputy District Attorney, laying out evidence for the jury.
“It was hard because you have to really announce things and get them to know why someone is guilty or why they aren’t,” Austin, 10, said. “It feels like you have your hands on an argument and if you don’t do things right you’re going to let something bad happen, or let something good happen.”
Found guilty of stealing the red bike by a jury of her own students, teacher Sandra Ertola said her students did a great job with the mock trial.
“I feel it’s important for them to get an understanding as they learn more about how our government works as the year goes on,” Ertola said. “It gives them an opportunity to see real life situations and what it can really mean for them or someone that they know, or be a part of the job experience so they can be a part of the system in a positive way.”
Nevada County Assistant Public Defender Keri Klein coached students in their portrayal of being a defense attorney Friday and said the mock trials gave students a sense of their rights as American citizens.
“A lot of people think that what we do is we get people off on a technicality, and that’s not correct. The constitution is not a technicality,” Klein said. “I hope they learn that people have a right to a trial, and the right to a jury verdict, as Americans that is something great that we do here in our country versus other countries.”
Students from each class rotated between three different courtrooms every half hour to learn about different agencies of local law enforcement from the Sheriff’s office to California Highway Patrol.
“We have law enforcement from different agencies answering questions and explaining the things that we do and what we specialize in and showing them some of our equipment,” CHP officer Greg Tassone said. “They’re learning about civics and government so I think it’s a good time for us to fit into that part of their learning, and kind of give them an inside look into how we do our job.”
Pleasant Valley Elementary School students enjoyed the tour of the old 1964 jailhouse Friday, bundling up in old fashioned jail cells with their fellow classmates and pretending to be locked up to get a sense of what it is like to be a prisoner.
“Obviously that was exciting for them,” Pleasant Valley school teacher Gene Smith said. “I heard some of them ask what would it be like for real prisoners to be in here for a certain length of time without showering, what the smells are like, and what the food would be like. So they’re processing this kind of information and hopefully we won’t ever see them back in here again.”
After mulling through the old jail, students were brought to a recreational sports area where probation officers and juvenile rehabilitation staff gave students an inside look into how youth are punished for committing crimes.
“Kids are fearful of the criminal justice system and think that it’s strictly punitive,” Nevada County Deputy Probation Officer Jim Amaral said. “But this part is to teach them that we are actually here to rehabilitate and to make them better. It’s a good prevention tool because there is a deterrent part, but also it’s education so it opens the kids’ eyes to something they normally see on reality television, which we all know is not real life.”
Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Accountability Kathleen Kiefer, a former Cottage Hill school teacher, visited the courthouse to observe how Law Day continues to compliment each classroom’s civics and U.S. history curriculum.
“It’s very important for our fifth-grade students to see this branch of our government so it’s our pleasure to put many things on hold at the courthouse so that the students can come and see that branch of government in action and to have face time with the people who take these careers,” Kiefer said. “It’s just a great opportunity.”
To contact Staff Writer Ivan Natividad, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4236.
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