William Henry students get up-close look at justice system

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Annette Ashley of the Kent County Courthouse’s Protonotary Office makes a presentation to William Henry Middle School students in 2014. (Submitted photos/Kim Browning)

DOVER — Nasir Wilford’s worst fears were not confirmed a couple weeks ago.

“I thought this was our last chance and if we did anything else wrong we were going to stay here,” he said.

Instead, the William Henry Middle School sixth-grader came to realize that “the court is not just for bad people.”

Thanks to a cooperative partnership between Kent County Courthouse personnel and Capital School District educators, kids are getting a firsthand look at the daily legal process in a nurturing environment.

From 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., 25 students received a behind-the-scenes tour of how the justice system works in the courthouse and who takes part.

Bailiff Kim Browning organized this year’s third Kent County Superior Court Student Outreach Program designed to introduce students to real-life examples of courthouse etiquette, security, case resolutions, defendants, judges and more.

Ms. Browning said her time in school visiting her grandson a few years ago inspired the project, which now has offered three tours. She said she witnessed some students disrespecting their teachers, a sign they might have trouble with authority in the future with far greater consequences.

Thus began the tours, and Ms. Browning believes “the attitude the students walk in with is not the one they walk out with.”

Describing the children as “fantastic” during their courthouse stay, Ms. Browning hopes they can leave with valuable information about the courthouse and legal system.

“If you can stop one kid from coming through the doors on a negative note, then it will all be worth it,” she said.

Afterward, the students receive certificates; they have written letters to thank Ms. Browning in the past, some pledging to change their behavior, she said.

A law enforcement officer for 35 years, including 21 at the Rikers Island correctional facility in New York, Ms. Browning said she’s motivated to do

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Kent County Superior Court Judge William L. Witham Jr. is pictured with William Henry Middle School students in 2014.

anything within her realm of expertise and employment to steer children the right way.

“The kids need some tender loving care, and need to know that someone is taking an interest in them,” she said. “I will dedicate my life to (helping kids however I can).”

The roomy and still-new feeling courthouse was host to the typical daily appearances by folks facing legal matters, but was hardly the dramatic scene sometimes portrayed on television.

“I thought I would see a prisoner in handcuffs coming in and saying ‘I want a lawyer. I want a lawyer.’ ” sixth-grader Andre Matthews said.

Instead, students listened to presentations from Resident Judge William L. Witham Jr., Head Public Defender William Deely, Deputy Attorney General Marie Graham and probation officer Robert Crump, along with a memorable demonstration by an explosive detective dog.

Also taking part were Cpls. Justin Meltzer and Jesse Silva of the Capitol Police Canine Unit and Lt. David Miller of the Department of Correction, among others.

“I was nervous,” sixth-grader Jeremiah Winder said. “The only thing I know about courts is from what I see in the newspaper and from the Dover police.”

Winder said he learned, among other things that “It’s a rule to call the judge ‘Your honor.’”

By the time a pizza lunch arrived at about noon, students seemed to be settled into their field trip, allaying earlier apprehensions.

“I was a little nervous about hearing about the trial, the judge,” sixth-grader Dennis Phillips said.

A message was received, according to sixth-grader Justice Scott.

“It makes me want to stay out of trouble because I don’t want to have to be coming here on probation and talking to an officer,” Scott said.

Thoughtful questions

Judge Witham said students asked thoughtful questions, and he expected to see some later taking part in the high school mock trial program and perhaps attending law school.

There was no denying the impact and stark reality of kids taking time to sit in a cell block, either, he said.

“We’re talking to kids in a formative stage of their lives when it comes to making choices to do things,” Judge Witham said.

Courthouse staff members were readily willing to spend time addressing the kids, he said, and have been since the inception of the program.

“It’s one of the few things we do over here that we don’t have several people at loggerheads with each other,” Judge Witham said.

Diane Lynch, William Henry Middle’s senior secretary, accompanied the students and was impressed with their interest.

“They had their hands up and were asking a lot of questions,” she said. “They got a bit antsy after a while, but they are 10- to 12-year-olds in the fifth and sixth grade.”

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