HIGHLAND PARK — Superior Court Judge Mildred Escobedo reminds the room full of students that Teen Court is the real deal, even though it’s taking place at Benjamin Franklin High School during sixth period. “This room is transformed to a Superior Court room now,” says Escobedo.
I remember this classroom when I attended Franklin High School, only then it was sixth period English. The same Star Trek mural hangs above the heads of the student jury, Judge Escobedo and the audience.
Teen Court, which is part of L.A. Superior Court’s outreach efforts, invites classrooms, teachers and all others to participate in cases dealing with non-serious crimes. An alternative to the regular juvenile court, Teen Court offers young offenders to have their day in court but not have their records spotted with something they did in their teens. Franklin High students, meanwhile, learn about the justice and court system.
Students are selected to sit in the jury and are briefed on cases beforehand. The jurors react to Judge Escobedo, who normally presides over a courtroom in East Los Angeles, the way teens react to most adult instruction: they mumble or slowly rise to their feet. Though during the actual court proceedings, the students’ attention is focused, and the room of 60-plus teenagers seems to melt away in a sea of quiet. This is mainly due to Judge Escobedo’s presence and character.
Often moving about the courtroom with a microphone in her hand, Judge Escobedo’s voice booms loudly as she deliberates. She asks students in the audience for their opinion and is constantly reminding them to speak up.
JROTC students stand at attention in the classroom, a probation officer sits at the back. The jury are seated in tiered benches, teenagers in colorful band shirts, or with studs in their ears, maybe in shorts and gelled up hair.
Cases heard at Teen Court deal with first time offenders, accompanied by their parents. Each juror asks a handful of questions during these proceedings, sometimes addressing the parents.
Freshman Thelma Medina is the court’s Spanish translator. At 14 years old, Medina has translated for crying parents who deliver testimonies on behalf of their children, and Medina has to convey these complex emotions to the courtroom.
“Sometimes people don’t want to be quiet as I’m trying to translate what they say. I have to talk over them and then people can’t hear me,” says Medina. “But translating for the court has helped me in presenting myself to people and also in talking in front of a group.”
When Judge Escobedo, a Franklin High School alum, approached the school in 2005 about the Teen Court program, the administration was thrilled. But they also had to assign a full-time coordinator, and find other resources for the public service.
“The judge’s bench we use for court was made by the school’s shop teacher,” says Escobedo.”It would be great if some donor would come along and support a program like this. To really get across what’s important for students in the long term.”
Throughout the year Teen Court students raise funds for field trips or Southwestern Law School students attend cases to brief the class on upcoming cases.
Jaimie Castaneda, 15, is part of the Teen Court club that meets after school. She’s confident that the trials students sit through provide a new perspective on life for everyone involved.
“It sort of takes us out of our own circle and lets us see things from a new way, to what other people are experiencing.”
Judge Escobedo sees the lessons learned during Teen Court as everything for teenagers, marking the transition from teenagers to mature adults.
“It’s logic, it’s history, it’s politics, and psychology. There are so many important life skills that are being dealt with. I don’t think there could be anything more important than a program at time like this.”
Nathan Solis is a Highland Park resident who writes about and photographs the L.A. music scene. You can find more of Solis stories, reviews and photos at Smashed Chair.