A prep course on marriage. Mock divorce trial accents issues for Connecticut teens

BANTER about last night's TV shows is drowned out by the bailiff's bellow: ``Oye, Oye, Oye ...'' A courtroom-full of teenagers hushes as Judge Edgar Bassick strides in, takes his seat, and firmly instructs his young listeners that while this is a mock trial, ``the facts and circumstances are very real.'' Those facts and circumstances add up to one thing: divorce. The Burnses, portrayed by two young lawyers, have arrived at the point of ``irreparable'' differences, spurred by disputes over child-rearing methods, the use of family income, his long hours at the office, and her drinking.

As attorneys for the plaintiff (Mrs. Burns) and defendent (her husband) question and cross-examine witnesses, the high school seniors occupying the jury box and most of the other seating in the chamber srutinize the proceedings, with varying degrees of attentiveness. They're here as part of a course on marriage, recently instituted at Stamford High School.

The idea is to give these young men and women of various racial and economic backgrounds an opportunity to think through the crucial issues confronting matrimony today - the evolving roles of wife and husband, the commitment to nurturing children, financial responsibilities, and, of course, the frequency of divorce. One out of two marriages in the United States today are eventually dissolved, the students are reminded.

``We're not trying to give anybody the answers - those change according to background,'' observes Warner Depuy, the youthful lawyer who had a major role in conceiving the course and who worked with teacher Ken Barber to bring it to the classroom (and courtroom). ``But the questions are the same. We tell them: `Kids, young adults, think about these things before you jump into a lifelong situation.'''

Are the teens taking that advice? Perhaps only the coming years will tell, but from the comments and questions aired during and after the mock divorce trial, there's at least cause for some optimism.

The marriage course, part of the high school's human behavior curriculum, is helping ``prepare us for life after school - to avoid mistakes,'' says dark-haired Debbie Matthews during the short break in the legal action caused by the arrival of a TV cameraman and reporter. Hillary King, who, like a number of others in the room, has experienced first-hand the effect of divorce on family life, comments, ``It's kind of real. I didn't know they [the people playing the roles] would be like this.'' A couple of others note the difference between this relatively sober occasion and the ``screaming'' heard on television's ``Divorce Court'' series.

More than an hour later, after the lawyers have completed their querying and the judge has retired to his chambers to craft a decision, Mr. Depuy (who had been attorney for the defendent) asks for questions and comments. By now, the students have heard both sides of the case, as well as the testimony of a domestic relations officer from the state.

``If she really had a drinking problem, he should have taken the kids with him when he moved out,'' contends one girl. ``If she has only $300 in the bank, where'd she get the money to buy a new car and a computer for the kids?'' asks a skeptical fellow in the back row of the jurors' box. Who was to blame for poorly disciplined children? Was Mr. Burns having an extramarital affair, as hinted at by his wife? These questions spring from various parts of the courtroom.

Soon Judge Bassick returns. His ruling goes heavily in favor of the wife - an outcome that brings groans from a few listeners (and not just the male contingent). ``That's half his salary!'' someone gasps when the $36,000 a year in child support and alimony is announced.

Responding to questions, the judge explains that ``I just try, as a judge, to make it as fair and equitable as possible.'' A basic rule, he says, is that ``the court will always be guided by the best interests of the children.''

The mock trial dramatically focuses on the ``divorce part'' of marriage, notes Depuy. Back in the classroom, students will be encouraged to zero in on ``the marriage part of marriage,'' he adds. That will be accomplished through discussion following up on today's trial, and through nine subsequent sessions emphasizing other facets of the marriage relationship - among them children, finances, sex, the resolution of conflict. Each session will draw on local experts - marriage therapists, physicians, accountants, lawyers, for example.

Use of community talent is a hallmark of this effort, says Depuy. If you look at the problem of divorce nationally, ``it's unmanageable,'' he says. But treated locally - bringing young people who may soon contemplate marriage together with professionals interested in shoring up the institution - there's the possibility of enlightening some people and heading off future divorces, in his view.

In some instances, says instructor Barber, students have indicated that classroom discussion has brimmed over into frank talks with their parents. Some parents, in turn, have told Barber of their appreciation for this. But in any case, says the teacher, ``We're just scratching the surface. They're the ones who have to follow through in their lives.''

Depuy hopes that Stamford High's experiment with a course on marriage will serve as a model for similar educational efforts elsewhere. With this in mind, he's in contact with lawyers from other parts of the country through the American Bar Association's Family Law Section.

One good thing about the course, he adds, is its flexible structure. If any community objects to a segment of the curriculum - say, the section on sex and marriage - that portion can be deleted without undermining the thrust of the course.

And, says this attorney who's been through numerous actual divorce litigations, if in the process of initiating such courses ``we divorce lawyers put ourselves out of business, great!''

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