Like many of you, I was one of those kids who loved the start of the school year. New notebooks, pens and pencils. New teachers and old friends. I still do.
As a retired juvenile judge, I now teach a juvenile law seminar as an adjunct professor at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport. Classes have just begun for the 23 second- and third-year law students in my class. Most graduated from Florida colleges or universities. Most are still in their 20s. Most don’t read a daily newspaper, even on-line. All of them are interested in my class because they are considering a career prosecuting or defending juveniles in court, or becoming an attorney for the Guardian Ad Litem program, or because they need to meet their paper-writing requirement, or because I have a reputation as an easy grader.
At my age, these students seem young. What they have in common is why teaching juvenile law is so rewarding — almost as rewarding as being a juvenile judge. They may not have bought or sold real property or signed a mortgage or traded stocks or executed a will. They will take those classes. But all 23 of them have been a kid!
Just like lawyers and judges and probation officers and case managers in juvenile court, my law students bring their different perspectives, backgrounds and experiences of being a kid. It makes for lively discussions.
I give each student a copy of Raised By The Courts: One Judge’s Insight Into Juvenile Justice, the book I wrote while still on the bench. But I tell them I could teach this course from the newspapers. We discuss recent articles from the Tampa Bay Times about the teen auto theft epidemic and joyriding leading to death; foster children sleeping in cars or government offices; public schools called “failure factories;” teenage girls lured by sex traffickers; the tragic case of Jordan Belliveau, the toddler who died shortly after being taken from foster parents who wanted to adopt him and returned to his birth mother, and happy cases like the foster boy who was adopted by his case manager on his 18th birthday.
My students learn about Judge Kimberly Todd’s baby court where the goal is to more quickly reunify parents with infants who have been taken from them and Judge Patrice Moore’s Girls Court, whose purpose is to give girls opportunity to express themselves, fix their families, get healthy and avoid another arrest. We bring guest speakers to our class, such as Judge James Pierce to talk about the Unified Family Court and his own startup, Boys Court. We also hear from Dr. Adele Solazzo, a court child psychologist,representatives from the ACLU and juvenile prosecutors and public defenders who spar in a good-natured way describing their battles in court.
Field trips are a must. The students visit dependency court, delinquency court and a commitment program. We focus on the science of developing brains and current changes in juvenile law, such as limiting life without parole sentences, tossing out false confessions and revoking mandatory laws charging juvenile as adults. And we remember our mantra: Kids are not short adults; kids do stupid things; kids need a responsible parent(s); kids need to feel safe, to be loved and to have hope.
Before the term is over, the students will write a footnoted 7,500-word paper on a topic I’ve approved in juvenile law. I look forward to reading and grading these papers. My students have all been kids, they are now adults, and some of them will be the future of juvenile justice.
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Irene Sullivan, a retired judge from the 6th Judicial Circuit bench, is an internationally recognized expert on juvenile justice.