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When Field Trips Go Awry

A group of high school students visited the Washington, D.C. Superior Court recently to see the legal system in action.  Students saw not only the courtrooms, but also the holding cells where the accused wait before entering the court.  Students talked to judges and prosecutors, discussed new bullying laws, and finally held mock trials in several of the complex’s courtrooms.   Said one of the students at the end of the day, “I want to study the law.  I want to be an attorney.”  According to the article in The Washington Post, students thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

As the students walked through the holding cell, one student observed, “You’re awaiting your destiny.”   In a bit of embellishment the reporter added, “And the weight of all that fear, from so many people who had been there, seemed palpable in that tiny room.”  Perhaps it appeared that way to the reporter. 

The  idea of taking students through courthouses or jail cells so they can get a glimpse of how the system works has been around for a long time.  Particularly popular a few years back was taking kids on a tour of prisons, thanks to the  documentary “Scared Straight!.”   Produced in 1978, it was the genesis for a number of later programs in which students visited prisons to see what might await potential offenders.  In the documentary, groups of inmates yell, scream, and generally attempt to terrify youngsters (sometimes already youthful offenders) so they would straighten up and avoid prison.  The genre lives on even today in “Beyond Scared Straight” on A&E.

While the idea is well-intentioned and entertaining (even SNL got into the act), there is little hard evidence that programs like this work.  In fact, one group of researchers in 2010 found that “Controlled studies show Courthouse that boot camp and “Scared Straight” interventions are ineffective, and even potentially harmful, for delinquents” (Lilienfeld, et.al.).

As one of those good-intentioned administrators who bought into a milder version of the program, I have to agree with the findings of the researchers.

A few years ago a prison close to my school district offered tours of the prison and presentations with prison guards and inmates to groups of seventh graders.  The idea was for the youngsters to get an inside view of life in prison as a way to deter bad behavior.  It was a state-wide initiative, and most districts, including my own, signed up for the tour.  I decided I had better go to as a chaperone.

The clanging of the doors locking behind each group as they moved through the entrance of the prison certainly got the kids’ attention.  The first meeting was with the prison guards, who seemed intent on showing the kids and adults how tough they were and how they didn’t put up with anything from the inmates.  If they meant to be scary, they succeeded.

Then the inmates came in to talk to the kids about life in prison.  Of course, the guards had chosen model inmates to speak to the kids, and they were well-spoken, thoughtful, even mildly humorous men who seemed appropriately remorseful about their crimes (mostly drug-related) and were looking forward to one day being free.

When the students got back to school, teachers asked them to write about what they had seen and their conclusions.  The results, which I felt compelled to share with the prison warder, were these.  The boys thought the guards were tough, but the prisoners were cool.  The girls wanted to know if they could write to the prisoners.

The program was short-lived.

I think the kids in Washington enjoyed their visit to the courthouse and learned something about the criminal justice system.  I’m not so sure they felt the “weight of all that fear” in the holding cell.  Kids are, after all, kids.  They don’t necessarily think like adults.



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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.