Aiming to educate students about the impact their decisions can have on their lives and families in the future, Judge Keno Vasquez is bringing the courtroom to the classroom.
Vasquez, the judge of the 398th State District Court for Hidalgo County, brought the Courts in Schools program to Juarez-Lincoln High School in the La Joya Independent School District last Friday morning. The event included actual court proceedings that involved Vasquez, defendants, defense counsel, prosecutors, law enforcement, a court reporter and a probation officer.
Students from Juarez-Lincoln got to witness the decisions Vasquez made firsthand, getting a glimpse into the facets of the judicial process, the various professionals working in the legal system. All of this was shown while simultaneously illustrating the consequences of illegal activity.
“It’s a great opportunity for our kids to witness what goes on in an actual courtroom,” Principal Ricardo Estrada said, telling the students to learn from what they saw that day.
Vasquez saw six defendants, and gave his rulings in front of the quiet students in the high school gymnasium and visitors from the public, including several board members and district employees.
Vasquez started off the morning by informing the students that the Courts in Schools Program is not “Judge Judy,” the popular television show that covers a small-claims court.
“This is the real thing,” Vasquez said. “What we’re going to be dealing with today are going to be cases that are alcohol or drug cases. That’s what we see a lot.”
Vasquez said that these kinds of cases are seen even at the high school level.
“We’re trying to teach you some consequences of what could happen to you,” Vasquez told the students. “If you’re 17 years old, you’re considered an adult [in the court of law]. Do you know how many kids we see that are seniors, 17 years old, and they can’t graduate? We don’t want to see that.”
Two of the defendants at court that day were members of the top ten percent of their classes in high school.
Vasquez warned the kids that going down the wrong path could lead to years of difficulty in finding a decent job and making a living.
Following his decisions, Vasquez would allow the defendants to speak to the students present. When given the chance, they all gave their testimony about how their choices negatively impacted their present.
After the court proceedings ended, students were able to ask Judge Vasquez and the other members of the court questions about their careers and how they feel about working in their professions. They ranged from inquiries about how to go about pursuing a career in law to how they used their connections to move forward in their jobs.
“There’s no substitute for hard work,” said Victoria Flores, a criminal defense attorney. “Anybody can open up the door for you, but you yourself have to get to where you want to go. Nobody’s going to hold your hand through it.”
While answering questions, Vasquez praised the students present for paying attention and maintaining civility during the proceedings.
“We forget about our community, and we assume that our community is just us, the adults, but our community is also our kids in school,” Vasquez said. “When I’m seeing 17-year-olds in my courtroom, they should be in high school, not in handcuffs and orange jumpsuits.”
The judge was motivated to figure out a way to educate students about the consequences to their actions, and noted that a law in the Code of Criminal Procedure allowed him to hold court in a school. He said he had to take advantage of it.
“It’s a learning process,” Vasquez said. “I’ve learned compassion and patience, in taking it back to the courtroom. I administer justice, and I’m more rehabilitative, as opposed to if I’m going to punish somebody, how are we going to help first?”
Vasquez has taken the Courts in Schools program to Pharr-San Juan-Alamo (PSJA) Southwest Early College High School before, and intends to do the same in the upcoming months at Pioneer High School in Sharyland, McAllen High School and some of the schools in Weslaco. He believes the program will continue to grow over time.
“Judge [Luis] Singleterry helped me out, he’s doing PSJA High School,” Vasquez said. “I can’t do them every month, but every couple of months we’ll get it done.”