The Final Fieldtrip

Tween’s amazing teacher asked me to chaperone the last field trip of the year. And of Tween’s elementary school career. I said yes.

Fortunately, Tween kicked to the curb his vomiting cycle just in time and awoke on field trip day feeling back to normal.

Destination: The County Courthouse and Detention Facility.

As field trips go, it was unfortunately one of the dullest. And yet… education and experience should not go to waste.

Interesting fact: our county courthouse was founded on the Sacramento River delta during the 1849 Gold Rush, when miners wanted legal documents to prove their right to mine on their land – to prove the gold was theirs – and to prevent others from trying to mine the veins on their property. I had no idea our county had such obvious ties to the Gold Rush (then again, I grew up in SoCal, and Gold Rush country felt so, so, so far away).


And so 23 students, Teacher, and 4 parent chaperones spent the day learning first-hand about the American judicial system.

First stop: Snack on the courthouse steps. Because a full tummy aids education.

Next stop: Security. How fun that the empty-handed kids go in first so they get a behind-the-scenes view of the security screens as the chaperones’ purses go through (no advance warning, but then again, the most disturbing thing in any of our purses might have been feminine hygiene products which no security guard would dare point out to a group of school kids).

And then the air pulsed – no kidding, something changed as the building hushed and the cameras zoomed in. The guards explained that a female juvenile prisoner was being escorted into a courtroom for trial. The screen showed a dark-haired young woman, hands cuffed behind her back. I glanced at the screen, to the kids, to the screen, and for a moment choked back tears.

Statistically speaking, out of 23 kids, it’s possible that she foreshadowed the future for some watching. Maybe not, as these kids have advantages so many American youth lack. And yet, having worked with kids and adolescents for much of my adult life, I have seen shifts in attitude and behavior, in circumstance and lifestyle, that could step-stone that path. Then again, accidents happen to the best of us, and even accidents have consequences. Sometimes, unimaginable consequences.

I’m not sure the kids got it. At day’s end, I was certain my own kid hadn’t understood most of the day – it was too long, too sit-still, too talk-at-them to take it all in. But my own heart broke just a little, for her, and for them. Lord, have mercy.

Continuing on: In-session criminal court room. As we arrived a defendant stood next to someone from the DA’s office. He had been arrested for a second DUI. The judge spoke to him with compassion, with kindness. She asked him about AA, and he responded that he’s finding it helpful so far. She leveled strong but fair penalties, and he accepted them with appropriate humility.

Case closed but we weren’t done; we remained in the courtroom for about an hour as the judge moved through at least 20 more cases, one right after the next. However, that first defendant was the only one free to stand in the courtroom. The rest had been escorted through the tunnel from the detention center next door and had to stand behind bars in a walled-in room; we could see only their faces and hands.

And that’s if the defendants even showed up, which several did not, forcing the judge to issue bench warrants along with hefty fees starting at $1,000. Maybe I’m naive, but I’m surprised that a) so many people do really stupid stuff, and b) once caught, they don’t take responsibility for their actions. I guess that’s human nature, and maybe they came from a background that lacked some of the (to me) basic operating instructions for human life (do what you’re supposed to do // don’t break the law // accept responsibility for your behavior), but seriously, people! One person who didn’t show had four open cases against her; another received a penalty of $30,000, which of course he won’t be able to pay.

Once she had cleared her docket, the judge gave the kids a few minutes of her lunch hour to talk about court. Several kids had questions about her gavel, but she doesn’t use one – her voice is her authority (awesome role modeling, especially for girls), although she did share a story of another judge who, when a defendant lost control and charged the bench, chucked his gavel and hit the defendant in the head to stop him.

They asked the most common reason someone comes to court, and she responded: Drugs. Almost all crime comes down to that one issue. People are doing drugs, buying drugs, selling drugs, stealing things to sell things to buy drugs, or fighting over drug-selling turf. Hey, kids: Don’t. Do. Drugs!

The judge enjoys her job and feels like she is giving back to the people. She smiled a lot and laughed at the sweet simplicity of the kids’ questions. She seemed to genuinely enjoy having them in her courtroom; she thanked them for coming.

Before we moved on, the court room Deputy showed the kids his “tool belt,” and explained that the gun comes last – he’s never had to fire it in court – and that mace and the tazer both inflict a whopping punishment should he be forced to use them. His most effective tool is his radio – as in all things, communication is a powerful tool.

Almost done: Dentention Facility lobby. Two women, each with children, quietly waiting; one, the docent explained, was putting money into what looked like an ATM machine so that her loved one in prison could have some money to spend on candy, or toothpaste, or whatever he needed from the prison store. Imagine, kids, not being able to earn your own money, not being able to so much as buy a pack of gum without someone’s help. Well, okay, that’s true for most children, but we’re talking about adults. Adults who can’t so much as walk out a door without permission, who occupy one small room – likely not much bigger than the full-sized beds some of kids sleep in – for 23 hours a day, until they get their one hour “out” to shower, or visit the store or library, or walk outside. Bleak.

The Finale: The kids got to do a mock trial in a real trial court room during the court’s lunch recess. They were assigned parts – judge, clerk, attorneys, bailiff, witnesses, and jury – and took their places. The case involved a woman accused of car theft. A police officer pulled over a woman driving a stolen car, and her finger prints were on the keys in the ignition. She, however, claims that someone else stole the car and invited her to take it for a drive; that he told her he stole it, and from where, and she was on her way to return it. [Going with the stupid people theme from the live court room, I’m not sure what’s worse: stealing the car, getting in a car with an admitted car thief, or actually trying to return the stolen car].

court room

And that was that. We ate a late lunch on the bus on our way back to school and arrived just as the end-of-day bell rang.

All three 5th grade classes took the same field trip on different days. I heard other parents questioning whether the trip had been age-appropriate, whether kids understood what they were seeing and hearing, or how it fit into the curriculum (American history).

I understand their concerns – so much did fly straight over kids’ heads – but I’m glad the kids got out of the classroom. Education involves a process of repeated exposure and experience. No one “gets it” the first time around, and I know for certain kids in this school district will hit it again in 8th and 12th grades at least. I hope they debriefed in the classroom the next day, and I’m glad I was there to be able to continue the conversation with Tween (one misunderstanding: he couldn’t understand why we were in court for an hour when we only saw one trial… He didn’t understand that those behind bars were also defendants, and that prisoners may not be allowed to stand in court).

A few quirky lessons I learned:
Eat a little something.
Keep a clean purse.
Be kind to everyone, child and prisoner and stupid person alike.
Don’t be stupid: take responsibility for your actions.
Live humbly.
Enjoy your job and you’ll do a good job.
Think fast! (You never know when you might have to use a gavel to defend yourself).
Take time for conversation.
Everyone needs someone – choose wisely.
Always keep learning, no matter where you are.

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