Denver Bar Association
December 2004
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Courtrooms to Classrooms

by Dick Reeve

Editor’s Note: This article continues the series inspired by DBA President Mary Jo Gross, where guest columnists write about their volunteer/charity involvement.

A 5th-grade student tries her
hand at questioning.

It is not unusual for a lawyer to go back to school, but it is a little unusual to have them return to the fifth grade! Yet that’s exactly what nearly 40 deputy district attorneys in Denver have been doing each fall for the past nine years through the Denver DA’s "Courtrooms to Classrooms" program.

This program partners Denver schools with the DA’s office. Deputy district attorneys adopt a classroom, usually a fifth-grade class, and visit once a month to talk about the law. The program, underwritten by the Coors Brewing Company, provides a civics-type course on the justice system, with an emphasis on positive decision-making skills. This partnership directly benefits teachers, prosecuting attorneys, and students; and may indirectly benefit the whole community. It was started by DA Bill Ritter in 1995 and will continue when Mitch Morrissey becomes DA next year.

Students in unit seven try the case of
Goldilocks and the Three Bears in a
mock trial.
Why would prosecutors agree to take on this extra work? Many say they get as much out of the experience as the kids. The students are a touchstone of sorts; their questions are real and from the
heart, and their enthusiasm is genuine. Courtrooms to Classrooms also gets them out of the office and into the community.

Deputy DA’s are paired into teams and assigned a classroom. These pairs visit their classroom for a couple of hours each month. Working together with teachers and an improved
curriculum, the attorneys create a variety of activities that excite the kids and meet learning objectives. These activities are drawn from eight basic themes.

The first is called "Who’s Who," in which students explore the roles of individuals in the justice system and learn how the three branches of government operate. The second is "Decisions, Decisions, Decisions," which exposes students to ideas on how to handle decisions and problems that they encounter each day. The third theme, "Using Resources to Make Decisions," guides students in developing skills they can apply when solving problems in everyday life. The fourth unit, "In the Best Interest of the Child," acquaints students with the main differences between the juvenile and adult justice systems and the management of justice system cases. "Groups and Individuals," the fifth unit, teaches students about how group membership influences individual behavior and about their responsibilities as a group member. "My Ideas Count" exposes students to the function and form of public policy making. Unit seven, entitled "Classrooms to Courtrooms," is a field trip to the courthouse where the students get a look at the justice system and use their questioning techniques and justice system vocabulary in a mock trial. It is not unusual to hear legal arguments on behalf of Goldilocks as she defends herself against allegations of burglary, theft and criminal mischief made by three bears! Goldilocks now has a criminal record reflecting numerous acquittals and convictions. "The Finale," the eighth and final unit, assesses the progress the program has made toward reaching its goals and objectives, and celebrates the completion of the program.

Courtrooms to Classrooms has been successful and rewarding. It is a model for similar programs in a dozen other states, and elsewhere in Colorado. It aims to reduce a child’s risk for "destructive behaviors," such as substance abuse, dropping out of school, truancy, violence and others. Research suggests that individuals who grow up in environments that promote "protective factors" are less likely to engage in destructive behaviors. Courtrooms to Classrooms promotes such protective factors by: placing a high value on education; promoting academic achievement; reinforcing strong attachments to school, family and community; creating and bonding to positive role models; and providing opportunities for positive risk-taking.

Students learn how different laws affect them every day. They gain an understanding of the differences in local ordinances, state statutes, federal laws and constitutional rights. The
program objectives are to educate,
motivate and encourage students in a positive, supportive setting, while giving the attorneys a chance to give back to the community and share in the excitement and motivation that the children radiate.

Courtrooms to Classrooms may also be early training for future members of the Bar. Given the number of times Goldilocks has been acquitted of all charges involving the Three Bears, we should all be on the lookout for the first law school graduate who lists "Courtrooms to Classrooms" on his or her resume.

Dick Reeve is general counsel/deputy district attorney with the 2nd judicial district. He is a member of the DBA Board of Trustees and former chair of The Colorado Lawyer Board of Editors.

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