There was judge and a jury of peers, testifying witnesses and cross-examining lawyers. And Zitlalic Salinas, a Squires Elementary fifth-grader, took the stand at North Las Vegas Justice Court to testify about her bicycle being vandalized.
Because it was a mock trial, part of the Kids in the Court program, nothing was really at stake and the bike story was made up. Nevertheless, the learning was real.
Helped by Clark County Chief Deputy District Attorney Chris Pandelis and defense attorney Ivette Maningo, students acted as defendant and victim, while others acted as a jury and the rest listened.
Judge Natalie Tyrrell began Kids in the Court in her courtroom in 2002 after a discussion with a former Squires principal at a City Council meeting.
“She said, ‘What’s so frustrating is our students don’t have goals about the future,’” Tyrrell said. She wanted the focus of the program to be keeping students in school: “Otherwise, they aren’t going to realize dreams,” she said.
For a school deemed at-risk (with 95 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced lunches and 68 percent English language learners) the program provides a new learning environment where students heard that resounding theme: staying in school leads to successful careers.
Zitlalic’s testimony was followed by testimony from a police officer who was supposed to have taken a police report after the bike vandalism. As in a true trial, attorneys leveled objections and cross-examined witnesses before giving final arguments.
After being instructed on the burden of proof, the jury deliberated and then declared the defendant not guilty.
“It was amazing,” Zitlalic said of the experience. She said she thinks her teachers chose her to participate because of her desire to be a lawyer.
“It makes you feel good because you’re helping other people feel righteous,” she said, noting that her ability to speak Spanish and a little French would be useful in a law career.
“I can make them feel welcome and safe,” she said of future clients.
Maningo and Pandelis also talked to students about the process of becoming a lawyer.
For Maningo, whose parents are Spanish and Cuban, her message ran deeper than education; she urged the room full of predominantly Latino students to use their bilingual skills to their advantage.
“It’s an asset; it’s not in any way a bad thing,” she said.
Tyrrell said one reason she hired Maningo nearly two decades ago was because of the need to serve North Las Vegas’ large Hispanic community.
“She stuck out of the applicants because she was the only one that could speak Spanish,” Tyrrell said of Maningo.
After the mock trial, students saw bailiff Ron Wright demonstrate how to use a stun gun, which Tyrrell said is “always a highlight” for the kids.
“You’re amazing, thank you so much,” Zitlalic said to Tyrrell before running off to catch the bus back to school with her classmates. “Have a nice day, Your Honor!”
Contact Brooke Wanser at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Bwanser_LVRJ on Twitter.