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Arundel high school students get sobering lesson in justice

Judge Shaem C.P. Spencer spoke to local high school students about the importance of the making good decisions in their lives during the county's Schools in the Court program on November 13, 2014. Photo by Peter Crispino For The Baltimore Sun
Judge Shaem C.P. Spencer spoke to local high school students about the importance of the making good decisions in their lives during the county's Schools in the Court program on November 13, 2014. Photo by Peter Crispino For The Baltimore Sun (Peter Crispino For The Baltimore)

Far removed from the personalities and courtroom drama depicted on television, local students recently witnessed the captivating and sobering realities of the criminal justice system firsthand.

About 100 students from criminal justice classes at Old Mill and Arundel high schools convened at the Robert F. Sweeney District Court Building in Annapolis on Thursday to spend the morning watching court proceedings and speaking with members of the judicial system.

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The three-hour session was the latest installment of Schools in the Court, a program of Anne Arundel County District Court that teaches students about the legal system while delivering cautionary tales about the importance of making good decisions.

"It's the first time most of our students have had an interaction with our court system, and we like it to be in this setting. It's positive and eye-opening and a really nice, risk-free environment where they can ask questions," said Maureen McMahon, assistant superintendent of Anne Arundel County public schools.

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During the morning session, students heard from Judge Shaem C.P. Spencer, who was presiding over criminal cases.

Students watched the proceedings in silence as several defendants — a single mother of three accused of stealing food from a Safeway store, an man charged with drunken driving and a young adult who prosecutors said caused a car accident while impaired by heroin — were given sentences ranging from two weekends to a year in jail.

After the court proceedings, Spencer, along with prosecutor Marot Hoskins and public defender Tiffany Holley, engaged the students in a question-and-answer session about the judgments. Spencer welcomed discussion about sentencing decisions, asking the students whether they felt the punishments were appropriate.

"That last young man [who appeared before the judge] is not far from you. He's from our county, he went to our county schools, he's only but four years older than some of you," Spencer said.

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Hoskins and Holley fielded a range of questions from the students ("Can you choose to not defend someone?" "How do know if a defendant is lying?") and discussed what drew them to their profession.

"Maybe you want to be a judge, maybe you want to be a lawyer, maybe you want to be a police officer, a stenographer, a courtroom clerk. I don't know, but we're all here today because we want to offer you this experience and opportunity," Spencer said.

Trooper 1st Class Justin Fohs and his police dog partner, Euro, offered the criminal justice students a lesson in probable cause. The 3-year-old German shepherd, trained to react to the odors of seven types of narcotics, easily pinpointed a bag of marijuana hidden inside a locker in the courtroom.

Fohs spoke about Euro's impressive olfactory capabilities and explained the key role that such dogs play in the law enforcement and criminal justice system. Students and teachers alike came away impressed.

"I think it's been eye-opening," said Arundel High social studies teacher Brian Sipe. "[The students] kind of have a mindset based on TV — like 'CSI' or 'Criminal Minds' — and then they come here and they're like, 'Wow! This is how it really works.' It's a lot different."

According to many of the students, the morning's most somber moment was a presentation by two of their peers, Zachary George, 17, and Emilio "Mills" Yslas, 18. The two are high school students and members of the Kent Island Volunteer Fire Department who responded to the scene of an accident that killed four of their friends last spring. Speed was determined to be a factor, and officials said the victims of the crash were not wearing seat belts when their car collided with another vehicle. The students received the message loud and clear.

"It made me change my mindset about things," said Michael Copeland, an Arundel High senior. "If I'm driving, I'm going to make sure everybody has their seat belt on before I'm even moving the car."

"I always just think, 'It'll never happen to me,' until I saw that," said Caressa Neal, a junior at Arundel.

George and Yslas' presentation hammered home the message delivered throughout the morning by Spencer: Make good decisions.

"I want you to make the choices in your life; I don't want to make choices for you. It's part of my job that I make choices every day, decisions that affect other people's lives," Spencer said.

"I don't want to make those decisions," he told the students. "I want you to make your own."

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