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In the midst of teaching eighth-graders about criminal law, Alameda County, Calif., Superior Court Judge Leopoldo Dorado couldn’t resist taking a swipe at Judge Judy. “You know, she was not a real trial judge,” he said of the television show’s tough-talking judge. “She was in family court. You see lawyers and judges yelling at each other on TV, but that doesn’t happen in real life.” Dorado’s session with 70 Creekside Middle School students in Castro Valley, Calif., is one of several San Francisco Bay Area programs that are part of a Judicial Council push to improve state court outreach on the community level. Although the effort is saddled with the somewhat cumbersome name of “Community-Focused Court Planning,” the goal is simple. “The court is coming out to see what people have to say” and play a greater role in the community, explained Judge Gordon Baranco, who heads the Alameda County Superior Court’s effort. So far, Alameda County judges have made three visits to eighth-grade classes at Creekside, Castro Valley’s Canyon Middle School and Oakland, Calif.’s Bret Harte Middle School. The goal of the program is to match the judges’ class visits with what the students are learning about the U.S. Constitution and the branches of government, said Martin Moshier, a court consultant who helps coordinate the school program. In the spring, the schools plan to take the students on a courthouse tour, he said. Judges and attorneys have made solo visits to schools for years, says Dorado. The Alameda County effort is an opportunity to involve more legal professionals in schools — and a golden opportunity to link their insight to classroom lessons. “I am always surprised about how thoughtful and intelligent the kids are,” said Dorado, who has visited schools while he was an Alameda County deputy district attorney and later as a judge. Dorado says the talks are good opportunities to poke holes in students’ misconceptions about the legal process. “They assume that things (in the courtroom) happen fast like on TV,” said the judge, who presides over criminal trials and says he prefers Harper Lee’s court portrayal in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In the real world, “I tell them that there is so much at stake; we go very carefully.” Despite the lighthearted poke at Judge Judy, the judge’s lesson about criminal law included some weighty issues. He and the students discussed hearsay, jury duty, perjury, California Proposition 21′s impact on juvenile suspects, the death penalty and the recent shooting at San Diego’s Santana High School. “How many of you think that (the 15-year-old suspect) should be tried as an adult?” asked Dorado. About three-quarters of the teen-agers raised their hands. “A juvenile?” A third of the students raised their hands. “I think that they should try him as a juvenile,” said 13-year-old Laura Preston, “because (authorities) could help him.” When the students’ attention began to flag, Dorado described the seamier side of some old cases. After a somewhat detailed description, the students groaned “Ewwww” appreciatively. So far visits by judges have included discussions about juvenile courts by Baranco and the effect of drugs by Judge Peggy Hora, who has presided over drug court at the Hayward Hall of Justice. The lectures have shed a different light on what can be a dry textbook subject, students say. “I didn’t know that I could be tried as an adult,” said 14-year-old Jeff Orias. “You learn about government in class but not in as much detail,” explained Jerry Vallortigara. After Dorado’s presentation, a few students lingered to talk to the judge about Lionel Tate, a 13-year-old who was recently sentenced to life in prison for beating a 6-year-old girl to death by imitating pro-wrestling moves. “I think the jury did the right thing,” said Heidi Miles, 14, noting that the teen must have known that he was inflicting fatal blows on his young playmate. “She must have cried out when she was hurt,” she said. The sessions have boosted students’ interests in current events, educators say. Students “are very attentive because it is related to what they are learning in class,” said Mary Ann DeGrazia, principal at Creekside. There have been a few rough spots — one teacher said it’s sometimes hard to find out in advance what the judges plan to speak about so she can mold her lesson to fit the visits. However, overall the experiment has been successful. “It’s valuable lifelong education,” said Janet Cerni, a Creekside teacher. Cerni has assigned more periodicals to her students because their interest in current events has increased from the classroom visits, she said. “The kids love it,” said Teresa Giles, a Canyon Middle School teacher. “In January, I teach the Constitution anyway. It really brings it to life.”

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