How high schoolers learn about the small claims court

When her older sister bought a condominium, Julie Bane, a 17-year-old high school senior, reviewed the contract and told her what she could demand from the builder and how to take him to court if need be.

Unlike many of her elders, Julie isn't befuddled by the "fine print" of a legal document.Nor is she confused or intimidated by the ins and outs of the courts.

Julie and her classmates in "The Law and You," an elective at Marlboro High School, have learned enough about the law and the courts to protect themselves.

And they learned it all, they say, because they have seen it all.

"This is a hands-on course," said Chuck Colacchio, who has been teaching the fullyear course to juniors and seniors for four years. I don't stress philosophy. I stress practicality. These are the realities."

The course includes little about the Supreme Court and a lot about small claims court, litte about the origins of common law and a lot about warranties and automobile insurance. It is designed to prepare students not for a bar exam , but for daily life.

The course does not train high school students to be lawyers; it teaches them when they need to hire a lawyer, according to Dean Boudreau, a senior in the course this year.

"It is one of the most, if not the most, practical courses in the school," said Michael Chase, another senior.

There are lectures covering all areas of civil and criminal law, but the lectures are not what makes the course work, according to the students.

"If he just explains it, you don't really get it," Julie Bane said. "But when you see the real thing, like the prison, it really gets to you."

Everyone taking the course spends time inside the police station, the district and state courts, and at least one prison getting a look at how the legal system works.

Even in the classroom students are never far from the courtroom. A wooden judge's bench and witness box take up the front of the room, and two dark robes hang nearby to transform students into magistrates during mock trials.

Sample contracts and pamphlets from legal associations and insurance companies are the course textbooks.

Students learn not only how they can take other people to court, but also what can happen if they end up in court as the defendant.

One day during the year begins at 7:30 a.m. at the local police station where small groups of students are read their rights, fingerprinted, photographed, booked, and shown the cells before they are taken to the district court to watch arraignments and trials from the jury box and to talk with court officials.

While the tours of the courts may turn out to be the most useful, the field trips to prisons are, students admit, the most dramatic.

"Inevitably when they come back they are buzzing," Mr. Colacchio said.

Classes prepare for the trips by watching three films about prison life: "Scared Straight," "Death in a Southwest Prison" and "The Glass House." But the tour and talks with administrators, guards, and inmates give them a much more realistic picture of prison life.

"From TV they never thought it was like this.You see a guy get 15 years. There's a commercial and he's out," Mr. Colacchio said.

As expected, one tour of a prison convinces students they don't want to go back for a longer stay.

"Through this course we can't teach their values," Mr. Collacchio said, "but what we can do is show them the consequences of their actions."

Despite all the traveling, the course is not expensive, he said.

Costs are kept down by having students pay for their transportation. A little extra is collected for each trip and used, by the choice of the students, to pay for those who can't afford the ticket.Parents and students not in the course always fill the empty seats.

The small groups going to the police station go on their own and there have been no disciplinary problems, Mr. Colacchio said, perhaps because the potential for trouble is canceled out by the students' interest.

The support of the community has also kept costs low. Lumper for the judge's bench and copies of legal documents have been donated.

Local lawyers, bankers, insurance agents, and businessmen have been willing to share their expertise, said Mr. Colacchio, who has a degree in criminal justice.

"When I don't know something it's Dime Time," he explained. "I slip a kid a dime and he calls the courthouse or a lawyer and gets an answer.People have been really great about talking to the kids.

"All it takes to get people involved is energy and a silver tongue," he said. "It's such a noble course nobody can say no."

All the school pays for is the textbook and the substitute teacher.

Demand for the course has increased steadily in four years, going from 40 students to 125 with another 125 turned away.

And the course has spread beyond the classroom, according to students. Other students and parents ask those in the course for information. Plans are being made to offer evening seminars because parents have shown so much interest.

The aim of the course is to give students a working knowledge of the law and that is something many people could use, Mr. Colacchio said.

Apparently it is working.Nine of the courses' graduates have filed suits in small claims court. And they have all won.

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