It is not unusual for a lawyer to go back to school, but it is a little unusual to have them return to the fifth grade! Yet that’s exactly what nearly 40 deputy district attorneys do each year through the Denver DA’s “Courtrooms to Classrooms” program.
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Courtrooms to Classrooms is a unique program that has been a part of the Denver District Attorney’s Office for the past Twenty-One Years. The program partners Denver schools with teams comprised of deputy district attorneys, investigators, victim advocates, diversion officers, and support staff to adopt a classroom, usually a fifth-grade, and visit monthly to teach and talk about the law and positive choices in life. The program was originally underwritten by the Coors Brewing Company and has been supported for the past twelve years by the Denver Justice Council. The program provides a professionally written curriculum on civics, the laws of the justice system with an emphasis on positive decision-making skills. This working partnership directly benefits the teachers, prosecutor’s staff, and students involved and evaluations indicate an indirectly benefit the whole community. Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter started the program in 1995 saying, “My commitment as District Attorney is that our office will give back to the community with our hearts as well as our heads. Courtrooms to Classrooms has been a wonderful opportunity to fulfill our promise.” His commitment has been expanded over the past twelve years by District Attorney Mitch Morrissey to include more classrooms and expansion of the “Classrooms to Courtrooms Field Trip Day,” where the kids come to our Courthouse and role play the “Trial of Goldilocks!”
Prosecutors are faced with huge demands on their time, so why would they agree to take on this extra work? Many say they get as much out of the experience as the kids. The students are a touchstone of sorts; their questions are real and from the heart and their enthusiasm is genuine.
District Attorney’s staff is established in teams and is then assigned a classroom that will be their own for the entire school year. The teams visit their classroom for a couple of hours each month. Working together with teachers, we create a variety of activities that excite kids and meet learning objectives. These activities are drawn from eight basic themes.
The first of the eight themes is called Who’s Who in which the students explore the roles of individuals in the justice system and learn how the three branches of government operate. The second is called Decisions, Decisions, Decisions which exposes students to ideas on how to handle decisions and problems that they encounter each day. The third theme, Using Resources to Make Decisions, guides students in developing skills they can apply when making decisions and solving problems in everyday life. The forth unit, In the Best Interest of the Child acquaints students with the main differences between the juvenile and adult justice systems and the management of justice system cases. Groups and Individuals, the fifth unit, teaches students about how group membership influences individual behavior and about their responsibility as a group member. My Ideas Count exposes students to the function and form of public policy making. The seventh unit, entitled Classrooms to Courtrooms is a field trip to the courthouse where the students get a first-hand look at the justice system and get to use their questioning techniques and justice system vocabulary in our mock trial. It is not unusual to hear legal arguments on behalf of Goldilocks as she defends herself against allegations made by three bears! The Finale, the eighth and final unit, assesses the progress the program has made toward reaching its goals and objectives and celebrates the completion of the program. Each of these themes consists of 15 different activities that teachers and professionals can use with their classes.
Courtrooms to Classrooms has been an extremely successful and rewarding program. It has been a model for programs in a dozen other states and elsewhere in Colorado. By design it aims to reduce a child’s risk for “destructive behaviors” such as substance abuse, dropping out of school, truancy, violence and others. Research suggests that individuals who grow up in environments that promote “protective factors” are less likely to engage in destructive behaviors. Courtrooms to Classrooms supports this research by promoting such protective factors by: placing a high value on education, promoting academic achievement, reinforcing strong attachments to school, family and community, creation and bonding to positive role models, and providing opportunities for positive risk taking.
Students are able to learn how different laws affect them every day. They gain an understanding of the differences in local ordinances, state statutes, federal laws and constitutional rights. The curriculum provides a positive role model and opportunities for students to learn problem-solving techniques. Throughout this program the objective is primarily to educate, motivate, and encourage the students while at the same time giving the attorneys a chance to give back to the community and share the excitement and motivation that these children radiate.