BROOKLYN, N.Y. — In a cluttered classroom in Brooklyn's P.S. 269, Beth Wallace is talking law with elementary school students.
The assistant district attorney in Brooklyn and the children have just read a skit about two imaginary boys who drench a new kid with paint after deciding he dresses "funny" and has "that onion color." But as the victim runs away in fear, teachers call police. The attackers are arrested.
What, Ms. Wallace presses the youths, is the charge?
"Menacing," responds one boy. "And aggravated harassment," she says, going on to discuss prejudice and further legal consequences with her panel.
These young debaters are not getting coached in career options. Instead, they're participating in a program with a much more straightforward and immediate goal: to counter the negative influences that flood children from low-income and more-affluent communities alike. "Think before you act" is the message.
Begun in 58 schools with a $1.2 million federal grant in 1990, Project Legal Lives reaches about 10,000 children in this New York borough. Some 500 attorneys - armed with a curriculum called "Choices" and in partnership with teachers in 330 classrooms - teach children about the law in a bid to keep them on its right side.
Charles Hynes, the Kings County district attorney who founded the program in response to rising drug- and bias-related crimes, sees such work as a great investment for prosecutors.
Teaching "is just as important, if not more, than the things prosecutors usually do," says Mr. Hynes, who now requires each of his deputies to spend 10 hours a month in the classroom.
To Hynes, the program has a broad range of benefits. "It's a reading program, it's an ethics program, it's a program to raise kids' sensitivity ... to how plausible it is to get into trouble over things that seem minor," he says, and "to make them think about the choices available."
See me in chambers
Throughout the year, children play out scenes they may well confront later - negative peer pressure, finding a gun or drugs, shoplifting, or confronting hate-motivated crimes. They act as judge, defendant, even the court clerk. And as the year progresses, so do the offenses - from yelling racial epithets, to domestic violence and manslaughter.
Students learn legal terms, the definition of offenses, and discuss the motivations behind criminal acts. They visit courts and jails, and stage a mock trial. There's even a call-in radio show, hosted by kids, to answer questions.
At a session in a troubled Flatbush neighborhood this summer, prosecutor Sabrina Shroff exhorted "Judge" Jean Joseph to speed up the "arraignment" on a domestic-violence case involving teen parents.
"You gotta move this along. In court, this should take seven minutes at most," she says. "Star" finally has pressed charges against her husband, "Jed," after repeated assaults. "Jed" pleads not guilty. Judge Jean sets bail and the class then considers the best course for "Jed," who abuses alcohol.
"They should stay apart forever," says Wasif Ali. "She should never have married him," says Jean. "She should have pressed charges the first time," insists Diane Garbow.
"How could they resolve this?" asks Ms. Shroff. "Maybe if he promised as a condition of bail to go to Alcoholics Anonymous or get counseling? Would that help?"
The children remain skeptical.
Emulated in 14 cities, Project Legal Lives was incorporated in 1995 into the US Education Act as a drug and crime prevention program for which district attorneys can get federal grants.
Administrators estimate it costs about $130 per child, paid in part by private donations. Thus far, they have been unable to pay for an evaluation of long-term impact. But Hynes has his own criterion.
"What I tell people," he says, "is that if we save only 10 of these kids - and we've worked with thousands and thousands - and it costs $58,000 to jail one for a year on Rykers Island, that's a saving of $580,000."
Since 1991, he adds, murders in Brooklyn have dropped by nearly two-thirds, from 800 a year, including 129 involving children 17 or younger. "I have to believe it has had a significant impact," he says.
But James Fox, dean of Northeastern University's College of Criminal Justice in Boston, says it's difficult to gauge the effect, given the abbreviated role prosecutors play in kids' lives.
"What is important," he says, "is the involvement of adults in the lives of children. It's not what you say to [children], what lessons are given, so much as that they observe and interact with positive adult role models. It's a good program, but it won't fix all the problems."
Deputy district attorneys concur. "It gives kids a broader perspective about what's possible," says Wilfredo Cotto, who co-wrote the curriculum. "Beyond talking about drugs, violence, and how we can make it a bit better, it is important for them to meet with people and learn about professions. For that reason alone, the program is worthwhile."
Children say it has made them think about careers. But Theresa Zhong says she also now takes life more seriously. "If you don't do your homework, the consequences are you won't do arts and crafts," she says. "But in real life if you kill or steal ... you could go to jail or get sued. It's serious."
Jorge Martinez says the program helped him with his temper. "Before if I was mad, I would want to punch someone," he says. "Like when my mom takes my sister to the mall, and buys her lots of things and never brings me stuff. Now I just count to 10. I learned fighting isn't worth it."
Four years after taking the program, Roland McBarnette still recalls participating in the mock-trial competition. Kids around him want to become basketball stars, he says, or just hang out. He now wants to be a lawyer.
"They taught you about not fighting and staying away from violence. That's why I'm still alive. I've seen a lot of kids jumped because their mouths got them in trouble. [This] teaches you morals. You know you have a goal. Nothing can stop you."