Broward County kids rock the Youth Summer Justice Program

Sometimes when I see children in the Broward County courthouse, they’re walking in a line, linked by shackles and on their way to face a judge. It’s always a heartbreaking scene.

This week, I had the heartwarming experience of meeting 40 or so teenagers there who were free, smart and engaged as they participated in the Broward Public Defender’s Youth Summer Justice Program.

The kids, all high school students from around Broward County, spent two weeks visiting courtrooms and learning what happens with different types of cases.

They heard from judges who rule over criminal, civil, family and dependency and delinquency hearings and trials.

And they also watched presentations by the Broward Sheriff Office’s K-9 bomb squad; the Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office and the crime lab.

Today the students put on a mock trial, with Judge Kenneth Gillespie presiding. Their parents were invited to attend and to also participate as jurors, Chief Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes, Jr. said.

Weekes taught the course and described how the kids’ heartstrings were pulled a bit before the trial began, when Gillespie oversaw an adoption hearing for a special needs child and his future family.

When I visited the group earlier this week, we talked about newspapers, journalism practices and ethics and how our team reports breaking news. I also described how and why the Sun Sentinel presents a live stream of bond court proceedings on our website.

They heard about some of the people I’ve met and stories I’ve filed, including one from a few years ago about a man who snuck a gun into the courthouse and threatened to kill himself.

The kids are savvy news consumers, and several described how they can tell an authentic news site on the Internet versus a fake or propaganda page.

They made me feel hopeful about the future. Though with filing stories to our website, Facebook and Twitter, I’m not sure about taking their advice to also get a Snapchat account, too!