School Court TV draws young actors into courtroom dramas

Within a half-hour of her arrival on the TV set, Kerri O'Dair was transformed from casually clad college student to the picture of a young lawyer, dressed in pearls, a black suit and high heels. While a stylist applied makeup, the 18-year-old studied her notes and prepared for her appearance on "School Court TV."

O'Dair, a student at the Community College of Baltimore County's Dundalk campus, plays the prosecutor in the latest episode of the courtroom drama, which airs this weekend on cable television at Comcast 45.2 or Fios 45.6. She had put together her own argument in a mock $5 million lawsuit against a landlord accused of neglecting to remove lead paint from his property before renting it to a young pregnant woman, whose child suffered neurological damage.

"I see myself as a good lawyer and a not-too-compassionate prosecutor," she said. "This show is helping me learn about how the law works. I might decide to be a lawyer, and this will be good practice for me. But I have found that acting is easier than lawyering."

Farzan Mohamed, a Baltimore businessman, created "School Court TV," which is now in its second season, and he pays the $5,000 cost of each taping. He gives the students an issue, like cyber-bullying or school vandalism, and encourages them to do research and write their own lines.

The shows are sparking an interest in public speaking and debate among the students and helping them build communication skills, Mohamed said.

"We are trying to create a kind of head start for older kids," he said. "This program is helping them to think about problems and develop their own opinions. So many kids come out of school today and they can't hold a discussion. We are getting them thinking about hard but important lessons."

O'Dair said she could not have asked for a more authentic background than a courtroom on the fourth floor of the Baltimore County Courthouse in Towson. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, an attorney, played the judge in the episode. He said he found the actors well-versed in the facts of the case and well-practiced in their arguments.

Jonathan George, who played the attorney for the landlord in what will be the series' 14th episode, said he has learned much from researching a variety of subjects and then writing his own lines and arguing in court.

"This is really teaching me how to be a leader," said George, a recent high school graduate who plans to join the Marines. "I really like doing the research for my own script."

He wouldn't mind skipping the makeup, though. "My face feels like a mask," he said.

Mohamed, a father of three, two of whom are involved in the program, hopes to find a few other investors, he said. He would like to expand the show to Washington channels, he said, and get public schools systems involved.

His 14-year-old son Ijaz Mohamed, a freshman at Howard High School, said he reviews the tapes so that he can continually improve his performance. He acknowledged, though, that he likes "the law aspects better than the acting. I like presenting the real thing."

The producer has attracted a few officials to play key roles. Kamenetz ruled in the lead-paint case, and Mohamed has Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler lined up for the bench in a future episode, he said.

Mohamed has held casting calls to attract young actors and draws from a pool of about 20. O'Dair and George have appeared in a few other episodes, as has Prince-Aseem Greene, 11, one of the youngest actors. He played O'Dair's co-counsel.

"This is my third case," said the Loyola Blakefield sixth-grader. "It is getting easier. I want to be district attorney one day, so this is good practice."

He argued factually, citing federal law and medical science, and took notes during the procedure. When T.C. Greene saw one of the first episodes on TV, she said she knew immediately that her son could handle the spotlight.

"This is wonderful experience for all these students," she said.

At the end of the episode, the judge ruled for the landlord. While he had great sympathy for the victim of lead poisoning and great admiration for arguments presented by O'Dair and Greene, there was insufficient evidence about the source of the poisoning, he said.

"Congratulations, counselors," Kamenetz said. "You did a great job, and even though you lost, you still won."

He commended all the players.

"Your responses to the judge's questions were well thought out," he said. "You were not rattled by the questions. You stuck with the facts."

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