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Juveniles' Court

By getting involved in crime through a mock investigation and trial, eighth-graders also get involved in classwork. The program was created by three Los Angeles teachers.


There were frequent huddles among legal teams and a flurry of objections from the defense.

Prosecutor Chris Gonzales, with pit bull ferocity, demanded that burglary suspect Dana Pell explain why her fingerprints were at the crime scene.

But this was no normal courtroom.

The prosecutor was only 13, barely big enough to fill his blue button-down shirt. Like the other lawyers, witnesses and the defendant, he was attending his first-period eighth-grade class.

The mock trial is the culmination of Woodrow Wilson Middle School's crime scene investigation course, one of a smattering of such classes offered nationally at this grade level.

It provides high drama--and an education in the criminal justice system--for the students, who sport formal attire for the two-day trial and meticulously research roles ranging from bailiff to expert witness.

"I can't sleep at night because I think about the trial," said 13-year-old Hourie Sahakian, a prosecutor for one of four classes to hold trials this winter in the school auditorium.

Cara Onofre, another of the 170 students who recently finished the course, found it surprisingly engaging.

"Before this, I never thought court was interesting," said the 13-year-old, who played lead defense attorney. "Not only do we get to do something fun, but we have great teachers supporting us."

The interdisciplinary history, science and writing course is the brainchild of Wilson Middle School teachers Barbara Harris, Robert Kiel and Kris Kohlmeier. The six-week class won them the 1996 team teaching award from textbook publisher Prentice Hall and the National Middle School Assn.

They have since co-written a workbook to help other teachers hold court in class.

Crime scene's success, the teachers said, is in its ability to both entertain and educate students. Attendance goes up, and homework is such fun that students often inundate instructors with weekend e-mails about assignments.

Parents call and write in praise of their children's new-found love of school, and many former students have returned to the school with tales of how the course influenced their college or career decisions.

"The beauty of this is that you will see kids at all levels participating," English teacher Harris said, adding that California academic standards, such as writing skills and data evaluation, are covered thoroughly.

"It's a way to achieve the state's standards in a way [students] will not forget," Harris said. "Instead of just studying and memorizing the Constitution, this is the Constitution in action."

For six weeks, students immerse themselves in solving an elaborately staged burglary. According to this year's scenario, antique dolls and sports cards worth $3,000 were stolen from the school's library.

The mystery unfolds as students comb the crime scene laid out by teachers, then examine the evidence in science class.

"What we are doing is using our science skills to become forensic investigators," said Kiel, Wilson's eighth-grade science teacher.

For two weeks, the science class is transformed into a crime lab. Kiel guides students as they collect and analyze fingerprints, shoe prints, a mysterious note outlining plans to divide the booty and hair and soil samples found at the crime scene. The junior sleuths then try to match the samples with those taken from suspects.

Harris readies students for crime solving by assigning them mystery novels, then having them write their own whodunits.

Note-taking, crime scene reports and even handwriting analysis are all part of the lesson plan.

Because no high-profile heist is complete without reporters, students also interview witnesses and craft their own news stories.

In the final two weeks, history teacher Kohlmeier helps students apply their studies of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in the mock courtroom.

School resource officer Roger Johnstone of the Glendale Police Department puts on a judge's robe, and a seventh-grade class is selected as the jury.

"My hope is that they get real-life experience out of this," Kohlmeier said. "And they learn you sometimes make the right decision and sometimes don't."

After one trial, 13-year-old defendant Hakop Utudzhyan was not happy with the judge's decision. The only one of his class' three defendants convicted of first degree burglary, he received a solemn sentence of "a week of trash pickup during lunch, and a week during recess."

He was grateful that his sentence was not binding.

"It went good," said smiling defense attorney Nisean Samuels.

Hakop objected with a guffaw: "What do you mean? They found me guilty."

For the two 13-year-olds--who, with several other students, face the challenge of mastering English as a second language--the project "has far more impact," said Mary Doll, an English language development teacher.

Engaging in roles as lawyers, defendants, police and reporters helps her students build confidence to participate more in other classes, Doll said.

The idea of using a mystery to get middle and high school students hooked on education seems to have caught on in recent years.

Similar projects are being used in at least two other California schools, and in Illinois and Pennsylvania.

"I don't think it's been done to a great extent because schools are trying to align themselves with the new state standards," said David Moorhouse of the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

"What it takes for a course like that is really committed and creative teachers," he said. "It's not an easy thing to do."

But students such as Wilson's first period prosecutor, Xochitel Cubero, 13, seem to appreciate the challenge.

"I think more schools should do this," she said of her first taste of "really fun" education. "It gets you thinking about your future."

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