Students learn about the law in a day at the courthouse

Tyriek Mack looked around the holding cell in D.C. Superior Court — cinder block walls, metal bench, metal toilet — and thought about a judge or jury determining guilt or innocence, jail or freedom. “You’re awaiting your destiny,” he said, and the weight of all that fear, from so many people who had been there, seemed palpable in the tiny room.

So when he went to the next part of the courthouse tour, he asked a judge if he ever made decisions that were clear on paper but that just didn’t feel right in his heart.

“I can’t imagine a better question,” Judge Michael Rankin said. “That is so profound. That goes to the gist of what being a judge is all about.”

He explained that judges are not like village elders coming up with a wise solution to a problem and talked about how they use the law to guide them.

Tyriek, a 16-year-old from Capitol Hill, spent Saturday at an event designed to teach local students about the judicial system — and show them the positive side of it.

“The courthouse is not just a place where people go and get locked up,” Judge Melvin Wright said, adding that’s how most people in the community see it. He hoped the 250 or so students would finish the day understanding how the system works and wanting to be lawyers, judges, clerks or probation officers.

Students learned about the city’s new anti-bullying law and talked about their own experiences with bullying, how difficult it could be for outsiders to determine when it had happened and how to resolve it.

“It’s so circumstantial,” Tyriek said, saying he could call a friend a name to tease him, but that it might sound mean to someone else.

When someone asked whether boys or girls are more likely to bully someone, Tyriek raised his hand and said girls are.

“There’s always so much drama. They do it so much they don’t even call it bullying,” he said.

Natasha Thomas, a 14-year-old student at McKinley Technology High School, said, “It’s not bullying. It’s just conflict.”

And then students and a few parents debated where the line is between the two. One mother started to cry as she described how her children had been targeted and how school officials had not helped.

Then students filled seven courtrooms to stage mock trials using the new law, acting out parts in a made-up story about a 6-foot-3-inch, 250-pound football player accused of bullying other students at his high school. In one room, a troop of Brownies, all wearing their vests dotted with merit badges, became a jury. In another, Natasha, with a big silver bow in her hair and a lace top, played “Tony,” the swaggering, popular football player whose too-tight hugs and nicknames for other students — especially some that sounded racist or anti-gay — made some kids and teachers uncomfortable.

In another wood-paneled courtroom, Tyriek sat at a desk with papers in front of him then stepped forward toward the bench in his bright red sneakers. He had chosen the role of prosecuting attorney and began talking to the jury. He began by saying the defense would say Tony is a nice, friendly guy who didn’t mean any harm, but that it doesn’t matter whether he is nice, whether he was trying to be funny.

“It does not matter whether he intended to cause harm. He did cause harm,” Tyriek said. “He did violate the statute.”

He then sat down again.

Lawyers whispered in students’ ears as the students began cross-examining witnesses. “Objection, leading!” they kept calling out, and a girl acting as judge would say, “Sustained” or “Overruled.”

Tyriek stood to question the “chemistry teacher” who brought the bullying complaint. “Do you think that. . . ” then pausing, he said, “Oh, I guess that would be leading. . . . No further questions.”

He’s almost certain, he said outside the courtroom, that “I want to study the law. I want to be an attorney.”

Susan Svrluga is a Virginia rover for the Washington Post, covering anything and everything that’s happening in the Commonwealth.
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