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Fourth graders tour county courthouse

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

The 50, fourth-grade students were quiet, when they climbed the stairs of the Harold R. Banke Justice Center. They were quiet when they got in the elevator and when they got out on the top floor.

They lined up in four lines, on the fourth-floor balcony, but then one boy, looking over the railing at the long drop, had to ask a question. He raised his hand and asked: "Has anyone ever thrown themself over?"

Court Administrator William Simmons, the students' guide on the tour through the court house, laughed. "No," he said.

Simmons guided the 50 students from Jackson Elementary on their field trip, last week. The youngsters were the courthouse's second group of participants in a new program designed to show Clayton grade schoolers how the county's judicial system works, and to encourage them to stay on the right side of the law.

Simmons said the field trips are a new idea that he's put together at the request of the judges, and so far they've been a success. He expects to be giving guided tours on an almost weekly basis for the rest of the year.

The Jackson Elementary students filed into Superior Court Judge Deborah Benefield's court room, Friday morning. They sat quietly in the hard, wooden pews. A lot of them fidgeted, swinging their legs, but they remained quiet and fixed their eyes on a man pleading guilty.

He stood in the front of the room at a podium, wearing an orange jumpsuit. He didn't look at the children, but spoke to the judge and then shuffled out, with shackles on his feet.

The ankle-cuffs made a big impression on the students, Teacher Cassandra Merrilles said.

One student told her later, "I wouldn't get tangled up like that," Merrilles said on Monday. Merrilles told the students they should avoid becoming like the manacled man.

"It's not a good feeling to have those things around you -- manacles," she said. "That, for them, is connected somewhat to slavery, so I told them, 'You must make the correct choices to have the freedom that you've grown to appreciate.'"

Merrilles said the lesson encouraging the children toward a law-abiding life was only part of the point of visiting the courthouse, though.

"My main objective," she said, "was to have the children see the checks and balances, and to show them that we need some form of government to maintain a civil community, and so they can understand their civic duties and responsibilities."

After the defendant left the room, Benefield came down off the bench and spoke to the students. Merrilles said the girls were impressed by a female judge, and that all of the students felt really comfortable talking to Benefield.

They asked her what they would have to do to become a judge. They also asked her why dog fighting is illegal and if she's ever sentenced anyone to a breaking rocks on a chain gang.

Benefield, in turn, told the students how she became a judge, what a judge does every day, and what a judge's role is in the community.

"Who is affected by crime?" she asked the 50 fourth graders.

"The person who did it," one said.

"The person's parents," another one said.

"Yeah," said the judge. "Who else?"

"People who had a gun to their head," said a kid in the back.

"And who else?" Benefield asked, and when the students seemed stumped, she told them the answer.

"Everyone," she said. "There is not one person who is not affected by crime. No one. We all live under this cloud."

Some of the students nodded, some of them swung their legs, and Benefield told them how to stay out of that orange jump suit.

"Who you hang around with can get you in trouble," she said. "Even if you don't want to get in trouble, even if you're trying to stay out of trouble, they can get you into trouble ... so it makes real good sense to make sure you're hanging out with the right people. You should listen to your parents and your teachers, too."