Program exposes local students to court hearings

PHARR — Sentences were issued in front of students at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo’s Southwest Early College High School last Friday, this as part of a program seeking to expose students to law careers and the dangers of getting into trouble.

“It’s not a mock trial. It’s real court,” said Hidalgo County District Judge Keno Vasquez, who issued the sentences. “I want to use it as a deterrent for them to say, ‘I don’t want those consequences. But you know what, I can become a judge. I can become a court reporter.”

The courtroom proceedings are being taken to PSJA ISD high schools as part of a new Pre-Law Institute intended to expose students interested in the field to the different careers they can pursue, as well as the dangers posed by drugs and alcohol.

But Vasquez is also collaborating with other districts including La Joya, Weslaco and Hidalgo to hold these hearings.

Law allows these proceedings to take place only for crimes having to do with alcohol and drugs, Vasquez clarified, such as driving while intoxicated or possession of controlled substance charges. All defendants are also in agreement to have the proceedings take place outside the courtroom.

“Judge Vasquez brought this up as an opportunity to be one of the first field experiences for our kids,” Marquez said. “We figured it would be a good opportunity for any student who was willing to understand the legal proceedings and any of our students who are at risk, who have maybe experienced problems with substance abuse in their family or personally.”

Southwest Early College High School Principal Ranulfo Marquez was part of a group of PSJA ISD officials who began talking about creating the new institute around September, and right now the program is in the recruiting stages.

The institute is set to be offered district-wide and aims to take mock trials further, exposing students interested in pursuing careers in law to the different pathways by providing court hearings, guest speakers and field trips.

The program will be adopted as an extracurricular activity or club and crafted to provide them a better understanding of civil government and law and compliment the early college program, Marquez said. It might even lead to internships.

“A lot of our students are taking dual-credit college courses,” he said. “A lot of them graduate with an associate degree and some of them are interested in maybe someday being an attorney. Well this gives them some experience while they are still in high school that will either reaffirm their desire to be an attorney or in the legal field, or it will let them know, ‘This is not for me.’ Either way it’s beneficial.”

Recruiting will go on until January as students will be expected to commit to the institute late that month. So far they will continue doing campus presentations.

Vasquez’s next stop is La Joya school district, where he said a hearing will be held at Juarez-Lincoln High School in the upcoming weeks. Conversations are solidifying with other schools around the county.

“This is real court, it’s not like Judge Judy,” he said. “I think this is a good program and we need to get involved more with our community and start seeing more of our younger kids, because I don’t want to see them in my courtroom.”