Looking into the law: three strategies

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Smitty, a convicted armed robber, helps high school students realize that crime doesn't pay.

Smitty talked to students enrolled in the ''Justice and the Law'' course taught by David G. Nelson at Sharon High School in Sharon, Mass., when they visited a Massachusetts prison project in October.

At a recent conference of Massachusetts Association for Law-Related Education , held at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Carl Suchecki, a senior, talked about what he learned from Smitty.

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''I could picture him when he first went in as one of these people rebelling against society,'' Carl said. ''Now . . . he wants to communicate with kids, to get them before they turn to crime. Smitty calls it his 'trust factor' - building trust between students and himself.''

Carl said that talking with the prisoners gave him ''some inkling that maybe the penal system is working.''

''One of the faults I've seen in the education of high school students is, there's never really a direct correlation between what you're studying and the reality of the situation,'' Carl said.''In this instance, we went there; we could actually see how the system was working and experience it through the eyes of prisoners.''

Carl's teacher, Mr. Nelson, takes his students to meet inmates of Norfolk State Prison who have been granted special permission to live at the Medfield State Hospital. He hopes to show them that ''inmates are people, and are a product of our society.'' The chosen prisoners had to undergo screenings by a corrections board, a committee at the Prison Project, and by the hospital staff. None of those chosen for the Medfield Norfolk Prison Project can have been convicted of arson, a drug-related crime, or a sex-related crime.

''The inmates talk very persuasively about the psycholgical issue of 'it's up to you' - taking responsibility for your behavior,'' Nelson said. ''The inmates that get into Medfield have taken responsibility for their actions.''

At the conference, Nelson also described other aspects of the Sharon law course. He said the students are paired off as ''mythical couples of high school sweethearts'' who go through life to see how the law would affect them. The couples are required to make contact with law officials, including lawyers, policemen, and probation officers.

Nelson said that students are given hypothetical situations: '' 'You are going to buy a house, or you are interested in making a will,' and they have to make contact. I give them a list of community resource people and they have to go to a lawyer or a real estate person and 'buy a house.' ''

David J. Hayes, director of human services at the Norfolk County District Attorney's Office and a speaker at the Amherst conference, said that teachers should choose carefully the law-related people brought before students. If you are going to choose a judge, choose one who deals with juvenile issues, and always tell a judge you are coming to his court, he said.

When bringing students to a courthouse, ''be prepared for an alternative ballgame'' in case what you had planned gets delayed, Mr. Hayes said.

He emphasized that ''one of the most valuable assets in the courtroom . . . is a court officer . . . he's the guy that everybody in that court depends on. He can pull people at random for you quickly.''

As well as teaching students how law is operating in society, using a variety of resources also exposes students to a broad range of careers in law-related fields, Hayes said.

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