South Jersey judges go courting in schools
VINELAND – From its official start at a middle school here last year, an effort to involve state judges and local attorneys in education on a semi-regular basis is now in 45 South Jersey schools with more than 2,600 students participating.
“Classroom to Courtroom” is a two-way street, too. Judges and attorneys go to schools and, as often as possible, groups of students head to their county’s Superior Court to watch what goes on. It happens twice a year for every school involved.
The program was rolled out in 2017 by Judge Benjamin Telsey, a Salem County native and the assignment judge for state courts in Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties. The three counties make up the state court system’s Vicinage 15, which also includes area municipal courts.
Telsey, who also participates in visits, has briefed state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and the administrative director of the state judiciary.
“The responses that we’ve gotten from schools has really been tremendous,” Telsey said in a recent interview. “The important thing I think is the outreach.”
Veteran's Memorial Middle School in Vineland was the starting point for 'Classroom to Courtroom,' an outreach program from the N.J. Superior Court. Joseph P. Smith, The Daily Journal
Telsey believes the contacts can help counter impressions that judges are out of touch with the lives of most people. Right now, all 24 full-time Superior Court judges in the area work with at least one school and many with two.
“And for the kids to hear that our judges have kids that are in school, for the kids to see the judges talk about real, everyday things, we think has really broken down some of the barriers,” Telsey said. “And it’s started to break down the barriers, not only with the kids and the judiciary, but there are so many valuable teachers out there and principals that are starting to see the judges in these real-type situations.”
For Day 1 of Classroom to Courtroom, Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Harold Johnson was dispatched to Veterans Memorial Intermediate School on South Main Road. The target audience: 90 fifth- and sixth-graders.
Johnson, a Family Division judge, came with vicinage ombudsman and attorney Vanessa Cardwell. A hearing officer, attorney Alexandra Oasin, also came.
Later, the classes would visit Johnson’s courtroom in Bridgeton, tour the complex, and take part in a mini-mock trial. That pretty much is the pattern Classroom to Courtroom wants to set, with some variation depending on how old the students are.
Jason Corter, trial court administrator for the three county courthouses, said one request early on was to observe what happens in criminal court. It’s something that can be arranged.
“But we just have to be careful, obviously, of what type of matter that they’re sitting in on,” Corter said.
“And we’re kind of allowing the judge and the school administration to decide what the needs of the students are,” Telsey said. “It’s going to continue. It’s going to expand. Right now, most of the judges, like I said, have two schools. I haven’t included the municipal court judges, yet. That may be something as we continue to expand with it.”
Telsey said one of the best impressions came in the Bridgeton School District, which has large numbers of students who speak Spanish. Judge Sandra Lopez, who speaks Spanish, visited Broad Street Elementary School.
Lopez spoke and read to her audience, about 300 students from kindergarten through second grade, in English and Spanish.
“We received … an email from the principal of the school — literally gushing over what it meant to the students and the parents of the students,” Telsey said. “And she was commenting in today’s day and age, with what’s happening with immigration, a lot of the parents are afraid of the judiciary, police, everything. And to break down that barrier a little bit meant a lot to these students, just to see the judge is a real person appearing in this type of situation.”
Telsey said another goal is to get across that there are jobs, a lot of them, in the court system that don’t require a legal degree or an appointment to the bench.
Bar associations in all three counties are part of the program. Cumberland has 12 attorneys involved, Gloucester 11, and Salem three.
For more information, contact vicinage ombudsman Vanessa Cardell at (856) 575-5244 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Joseph P. Smith; jpsmith_dj; (856) 563-5252; email@example.com
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