EL SERENO : Wilson Teen Court Gets Change of Venue

For two years, Teen Court has presided at Woodrow Wilson High School to give adolescent defendants a hearing before a true jury of their peers--other teens.

This year, however, the program has received a change of venue from the drab classroom with scattered desks to an elaborate, oak-paneled courtroom complete with jury box, spectator seats, leather chairs for the prosecution and defense and a witness stand.

The room, half of a former drama classroom, has video and computer hookups and a roll-down video screen positioned so the jury can view evidence.

The Wilson High seal hangs on a wall behind the judge's chair, where purple drapes from floor to ceiling hide the classroom dividing wall.

The setup was funded with $5,000 from the State Bar Assn. Foundation, $80,000 from the Los Angeles Unified School District and $5,000 from Baker and Hostetler, a Los Angeles law firm.

"When kids come into Teen Court, you see their jaws drop because they don't think it's going to be anything serious, but once they walk in the room, they see that it's serious," said Ira Roth, vice principal at Wilson, which has a magnet program for students interested in law and criminal justice.

The courtroom was designed to resemble those of the 1930s, to reflect the era in which the school was founded, said Principal Ramon S. Castillo.

"What we want is to establish for the students the real law-related careers," Castillo said. "It adds a lot to the whole atmosphere."

On Wednesday afternoon, students heard three real cases from the Northeast Juvenile Justice Center, where normally they would have undergone more formal proceedings in which sentences meted out generally are tougher than in Teen Court.

The juveniles referred to Teen Court were not hard-core offenders, said Juvenile Court Supervising Judge Jaime R. Corral. He explained that the youths were starting to go astray and might be helped most by having other teens hold them accountable. The defendants faced charges such as vandalism, petty theft and minor drug possession.

"We're trying to nip it in the bud and also we're educating the kids about the system," Corral said. "We never ask kids to help in the community, but in Teen Court we always ask the kids what they think and they're extremely responsible."

Under supervision from Juvenile Court, the teen jurors usually hand out sentences of community service and ask some defendants to write essays about the crime they committed or letters of apology to the victims. Sometimes they will ask a defendant to return to Teen Court as a juror after the six-month mandatory probation.

The courtroom will also be the setting for law-related events, such as mock trial competitions held every year by students in the school's Administration of Justice and Law magnet program. In its fourth year, the magnet program enrolls 220 high school students districtwide, said coordinator Alan Amundsen.

Other classes will also use the room for law-related lessons, such as an English class discussion of the play "Twelve Angry Men," which is about a jury deciding the fate of a murder suspect.

"It's something that we can look forward to," said Michelle Montes, 17, a senior in the magnet program who plans to be a lawyer. "It has the feel of a Downtown courtroom. It gives us more of an advantage of being in the courtroom, how to act."

Other students who served as jurors Wednesday agreed: "It does affect you a lot," said Arthur Akkerman, 16. "For the ones who are accused, they don't take it as something funny and it makes you important."

At the five other high schools where the program exists, Teen Court presides in less ideal settings, such as at one school where the judge sits in a chair on an elevated desk, said Judge David S. Wesley, of the State Bar Court.

Although the program and instruction are much more important than the setting, something happens when the students are in an official-looking space, Wesley said.

"This is a real courtroom and the kids realize that," he said. "It gives dignity to what they're doing."

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