By SPIKE MAYNARD
CHARLESTON -- Courts can change a child's life in many ways.
Juvenile delinquency crime and punishment can set a child on a course for good or evil. Children who suffer from abuse and neglect get justice, and protection. Those involved in child custody and divorce get resolution, and a sense of permanency.
And then there are children whose only connection to a court is through the television. There are dozens of TV courts, none of them very realistic. Those are the children the Supreme Court's new program, West Virginia Law Adventure, is designed to educate.
Unlike other mock trial programs in which adults write scripts and students simply perform parts, West Virginia Law Adventure will require middle school students to write mock trial scripts themselves based on a specific theme that will be chosen each year by the Young Lawyers Section of The West Virginia State Bar. The hope is that by writing the scripts, students will be more engaged in learning about the law and the court process.
The format of their scripts will have to follow guidelines, which will be set out in a rules packet sent to all middle schools at the beginning of the school year each September.
West Virginia Law Adventure is adapted with permission from the New Jersey State Bar Foundation's original, award-winning Law Adventure Competition and Programs for grades seven and eight. For more information about the New Jersey State Bar Foundation, visit www.njsbf.org.
Mason County Magistrate Cheryl Ross, who has conducted a middle school mock trial program in her county for several years, and members of the Public Information Committee of The West Virginia State Bar will be asked to help write the initial rules in the summer of 2008.
The rules will call for students to relate the facts of their case without expressing opinions or drawing conclusions; clearly to define the issues, sub-issues and legal concepts; and to write in roles for witnesses as well as parts for a defendant and prosecutor in a criminal case or plaintiff and defendant in a civil case.
The Supreme Court worked with two classes from Andrew Jackson Middle School and Point Pleasant Middle School in the spring of 2008. The Court plans to work with all middle schools in five pilot counties (including Kanawha and Mason Counties ) in the 2008-2009 school year. The program will go statewide in the 2009-2010 school year.
Once West Virginia Law Adventure is an annual statewide program, at the beginning of each school year, all middle schools in West Virginia will be invited to have their classes write mock trial scripts. We will allow each school to write multiple scripts, from multiple classes in each grade level.
That's where you, the members of the Bar, come in. Teachers will be encouraged to ask a local lawyer or judicial officer to come to their classes to help develop scripts.
There will be a week in January set aside where participating classes MUST take a field trip to the local courthouse to perform their mock trials in front of a circuit judge, family court judge or magistrate.
In early February teachers will mail their mock trial scripts to The West Virginia State Bar, and the Young Lawyers Section will choose two winners in each middle school grade level.
The winners will be invited to Charleston on one day in March to perform their mock trials with one or more Supreme Court justices sitting as judge.
The Supreme Court, the Bar Foundation, and individual committees of The West Virginia State Bar are expected to pay the cost of the field trips to courthouses and for the winners' trips to Charleston.
One purpose of the five-county pilot project is to determine how much the field trips will cost. We also hope to determine if there is interest among schools in a multi-grade program or only in an eighth-grade mock trial program.
Regina Scotchie, the social studies coordinator at the state Department of Education, has been a very helpful and key advisor on this project, which the West Virginia Board of Education has approved. She believes teachers will choose NOT to participate in West Virginia Law Adventure if they have to pay for field trips, because schools are strapped for money.
It is important to the Court to give all middle school students an opportunity to visit a courthouse, even if they do not win the competition. West Virginia is a small state, and our students should be given the chance to learn about the judicial branch of government first-hand, a chance that their parents and school systems typically cannot afford to give them.
You never know how a class trip to the courthouse might affect a child who never would have had any other reason to come into contact with the justice system. The Court hopes West Virginia Law Adventure will inspire some students who had not considered a career in the law to begin thinking about one. We hope the program and field trips will instill a knowledge of the real-world justice system, so that students can understand its vast differences with TV courts.
The Court, the Bar, and the State will be the beneficiaries.
Maynard is Chief Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.