Judges and lawyers go back to school to share civics lessons
MEGAN SPICER, The Connecticut Law Tribune
April 15, 2016
Have you ever heard of double jeopardy?” Paige Quilliam asked a student at the Haddam-Killingworth Middle School one rainy Thursday afternoon.
“The TV show?” the student asked, laughing as she turned her head up to look at Quilliam.
Quilliam, an attorney with Sterns, Harris, Guernesy & Quilliam in Niantic, and Jonathan Lane, who practices with Mariani Reck Lane in New London, walked around the classroom being used by the middle school’s Law Club and helped the students work through the Bill of Rights. Three groups had been assigned different rights and group members discussed them internally before explaining them to the rest of the eight-member club. All of this was in preparation for two games of bingo that would test their recently gained knowledge.
Across the state, students and lawyers are coming together as part of a project put together by New Haven Superior Court Judge Kenneth Shluger to expose students to the Connecticut legal system and learn from those who have made the law their life’s work. At HKMS, history teachers hand-picked students to take part in Law Club, which meets once a week for an hour after school.
This is the second year of Shluger’s program-the first at HKMS-which teaches children about such topics as the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, civics in general and the court system in particular. It was initially created at the Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School in New London, where Shluger still leads his own program.
The program involves 16 volunteer lawyers and judges, including Quilliam and Lane who work out of the HKMS. The 10-week program has been launched in Groton, Norwich, New London, Manchester, East Haddam, Higganum, Salem and Hartford. There are plans to further expand it into other towns and cities, such as Waterbury, Quilliam said.
“In an age when more than 70 percent of Americans can name all of the Three Stooges, but less than 20 percent can name all three of the branches of our federal government, there is a fundamental lack of civics knowledge and understanding in every corner of our society,” Shluger said. “We are teaching these kids about our government and at the same time serving as positive role models and mentors.”
Each program is run a bit differently, depending on the lawyer or judge involved. Some schools have already visited courthouses. Quilliam told the students Shluger was going to give them a tour of the New Haven Superior Court and may even let the students wear his robes, which made the students visibly excited. “This is such a positive thing to do with the law,” Quilliam said, whose daughter is in the Law Club.
Audrey Snyder, 11, said the club has made her consider wanting to be a lawyer when she gets older. “Now that I know more, it’s more interesting than I thought,” Snyder said. “I thought [the legal system consisted of] only really boring things.”
Each student may have a different view of and approach to the law depending on their life experiences. Olivia Swanson, a sixth-grader in the HKMS class, has family members who are lawyers and enjoyed learning more about what they do and what they had to study to get their jobs. She and Snyder said while they had learned a lot about the legislative branch in school, they hadn’t learned much about the judicial branch.
“A lot of the kids have predisposed notions about lawyers and the court. The positive nature of our program is it’s educational but it’s also fun,” Quilliam said. “Everyone is so amendable to teaching them about it.”
The finales of each program consist of a mock trial in the courthouse as well as a debate in the classroom. On that rainy Thursday, the students pitched possible debate topics to Quilliam and Lane: Year-round schooling; allowing gum in school; requiring a dress code; or determining what the minimum wage should be. By a show of hands, the latter topic won.
Lane and Quilliam said while they have taught the students more about lawyers and the judicial branch, the first-time teachers have also learned from their students. “You think it’s scary when a judge asks a question?” Lane quipped. “Wait till a student raises their hand.”
Any attorney who would like to learn more about bringing the legal education program to a middle school in their hometown can contact Judge Kenneth Shluger at Kenneth.Shluger@jud.ct.gov .
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