A group of middle school students from Santa Ana went to Juvenile Hall on Wednesday for a lesson in life.
"This is all real, not just some story you're seeing on television," Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas told the kids from Sierra Intermediate School. "These are kids in serious trouble who have made bad choices in their lives."
After this preamble, the students filed into the courtroom of Commissioner Gregory W. Jones, where they got their first example of the kids Rackauckas was talking about. Escorted by a bailiff, a tall, pale boy shuffled in. He wore a blue jumper and handcuffs.
Although the kids were already sitting quietly after Jones instructed them not to chew gum or talk during the proceedings, they got even quieter and exchanged furtive glances when the handcuffed boy stood before them, his head down. They never heard the charge against the boy, but the point was made.
The 26 students from Sierra Intermediate are this week's participants in a program called Juvenile Justice Education Together. Started by the district attorney's office last October, the program takes students on tours of the courthouse and Juvenile Hall in Orange.
"Here, you'll see an endless parade of people the same age as you who have made bad choices that will disrupt their lives," Jones said. "This is a place you don't want to ever come back to, except as a spectator."
In the courtroom, Jones introduced the students to the court reporter, the bailiff, the prosecuting attorneys and the attending probation officer. He made no mention of the boy in chains.
"It's amazing that one bad choice can take you to a bad lifetime," said Gaby Guillen, 15, of Santa Ana, shaking her head after leaving the courtroom.
After the courtroom, the kids toured Juvenile Hall. Although they didn't meet any inmates, they were impressed with a presentation by Dallas Stahr, division director of Juvenile Hall, who stood in front of a long table full of the different-colored inmate jumpers, bulletproof vests and restraints.
Stahr introduced the students to a probation officer on duty in Juvenile Hall and showed them the belts that some officials wear, which include a pouch for handcuffs, a flashlight, rubber gloves, a CPR mask, and a holster for pepper spray.
"How many of you like hot sauce on your meals?" asked Stahr, as a room full of hands shot up. "Take that hot sauce and multiply it by a million. That's the kind of heat this will generate."
The students tittered and looked at each other. Many also gasped when Stahr told them that of 459 juveniles held at Juvenile Hall, 59 were girls.
"Your ability to make decisions for yourself is taken away from you," he said, explaining that the inmates stick to the same schedule almost every day--school, then chores--and have no choice in what they can eat. All personal property is taken away from them when they're booked.
The students peppered Stahr with questions: Has anybody tried to escape? What's the average sentence at Juvenile Hall? Do inmates ever harm the guards?
He answered them all patiently, saying that deputies have been harmed and that the last escape attempt was in 1994 when an inmate attempted to climb the back fence. But since then, he said, the county has installed extra razor wire, movement sensors and extra security cameras. In fact, he added, the students were being recorded on camera right then.
"Ooooh," the students said.
After the tour, the kids came back to an empty courtroom to review the day with their assistant principal, Frank Kaydis, and officials from the district attorney's office.
"So what have you learned?" asked Assistant Dist. Atty. Jim Tanizaki.
"Not to go to jail," Christopher Kleinschmidt, 12, said.