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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The right 'Choices': Court visit seeks to educate, deter students

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Banner Graphic/JARED JERNAGAN Putnam County Circuit Court Judge Matthew Headley speaks to students in Jill McCammack's fifth grade class from Fillmore Elementary School. The Choices program gives all fifth-graders in Putnam County the chance to observe real juvenile court cases in Headley's courtroom. [Order this photo]
GREENCASTLE -- Carol Emery started the Choices program for Putnam County fifth-graders with a simple concept.

"In life, you make choices, and they have positive or negative consequences," she said.

The retired South Putnam counselor began the program about a decade ago with fifth-graders from the three South Putnam elementary schools. In September 2006, a partnership began between the Putnam County juvenile justice system, Putnam County Juvenile Probation Department and the Putnam County Youth Development Commission (PCYDC) to bring all county fifth grade students to the courthouse to see real juvenile justice cases.

The benefits of the program are that students get to see a branch of government at work, and they are also encouraged to make the right choices and stay out of the justice system.

"We think if we can make an impact on one of the children that might prevent them from ever getting into the court system, then we've done our job," Putnam County Circuit Court Judge Matthew Headley said.

Fifth grade classes from around the county have the opportunity to observe Headley's courtroom during juvenile hearings. The effect on behavior has been positive.

"What we have seen in our office is it really does reduce the number of kids that the schools have on probation," juvenile probation officer Renee Marsteller said. "It opens their eyes to things that they might not know that would get them in trouble. What we're trying to do is tell them things that get them to the probation department, in hopes that they'll learn from our talks and they won't be in our office."

Marsteller added that when kids come into her office who have been through the program, she reminds them.

"A lot of times when I have kids come to the courthouse that I have talked to, I say to them, 'Don't you remember me telling you that this was against the law?' A lot of times they'll hang their heads and say, 'Yeah, I do remember,'" Marsteller said. "It is a very nice deterrent."

Emery said the fifth grade year has been agreed upon because it is the year before students move up to middle school in most school systems. It also seems to be the right age for the kids to understand what's really going on in front of them.

"We see this as a win-win situation because they see youth not very much older than themselves," said Linda Merkel of PCYDC.

Fifth-graders in Jill McCammack's class at Fillmore Elementary School recently visited juvenile court as part of the Choices program. Pictured with the students are, back row from left, juvenile probation officer Renee Marsteller, Judge Matthew Headley, deputy prosecutor James Hanner, Putnam County Youth Development executive director Linda Merkel, Choices program coordinator Carol Emery and McCammack. [Order this photo]
"It's a good program," Putnam County Prosecutor Tim Bookwalter said.

The prosecutor's office has been another essential part of the program. Not only do the students get to learn from Deputy Prosecutor James Hanner, but Bookwalter's office also underwrites the cost of fuel for the buses.

"There's something about that fifth grade year," Bookwalter said. "If we catch them at that level, they're mature enough to understand what's going on, but they're not old enough to be cocky yet. It seems to be the perfect year to bring them in."

Emery said she is grateful to have the participation of agencies from around the area.

"Everybody contributes," she said. "We try to get the kids to see different parts of the system."

It's those different parts of the system that make the trip to the courthouse an educational experience as well.

On Jan. 31, Jill McCammack's fifth grade class from Fillmore Elementary observed court. The teacher said the kids were ready to see concepts from a textbook put into action.

"They are excited," McCammack said. "The kids were more excited to come here than they were to the zoo. They get to see the interactions of the branches of the law. They want to see how it fits together."

The courtroom observance is one of Headley's favorite parts of the program as well. The son of a retired teacher, the teaching gene seems to take over as he talks to the kids, developing a quick rapport with the class.

The success of the program is also evident in the letters students write to Headley following their visits. The judge said he sits down to read the letters when he has a free moment, and makes sure to keep them.

Reading them, it's obvious why a judge -- serving in a sometimes thankless position -- would want to hold on to them. Kids thank him for his time and the information provided.

"I learned that bad decisions lead to even worse consequences," read a letter from Tzouanakis fifth-grader Amy Gong. "Today also taught me that I never ever want to be a juvenile delinquent. And now I am even more inspired to be a lawyer."

Headley tries to keep the atmosphere focused on teaching the students.

"We want to be able to allow them to see one of the three branches of government at work," Headley said. "We're not there to scare them. We're there just to try to educate them. We want to say, 'This is what you have to think about.'"

More broadly, Headley said the goal of Choices is in line with the goal of juvenile court -- while punishment is a part of the process, the much bigger goal is to educate and rehabilitate the offenders.

"Our main thrust is rehabilitation," Headley said. "A lot of time folks in the community think that retribution sometimes is more important than rehabilitation, but the Indiana Constitution and the statutes of juvenile court preface everything with rehabilitation. If we get the kid to start doing the right things early in life, we won't see him or her back."

With the participation of the various departments, everyone seems to agree the major credit goes to Emery. It's her commitment to students, even in retirement, that drives the Choices program.

"It's very hard for anyone in the school systems throughout Putnam County to say no to Carol," Headley said.

For more information about the Choices program, contact Putnam County Juvenile Probation at 653-1257.

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Judge Headley does a wonderful Job educating our kids in his court rm,

Hats off to Carol for creating a good program, The Putnam County courthouse staff never receive thanks for their jobs, I work in and out of the court house and see wonderful people everyday trying to make a difference, Unless you know anything about the law it is hard to understand sometimes why some people receive short sentences, However the Judge's hands are tied they too have to follow the law.

-- Posted by NPmom66 on Sat, Feb 5, 2011, at 11:11 AM

This is a great program. Carol Emery is such an asset to the Greencastle community. Kudos to Judge Headley for his participation as well.

-- Posted by juanvaldez on Sat, Feb 5, 2011, at 2:21 PM

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