State Bar's Law Works program reaches out to youths
to help them understand the legal world
by Kathleen O. Beitiks
Attorney Patricia A. Johnson of Los Angeles stopped watching television news. She also almost stopped reading newspapers, selectively eliminating stories which focused on teenagers and violence.
News about young people depressed her, especially when she thought about the future of this country in their hands. Johnson has no children of her own, and "my experience with what's happening to our youth was through the media -- and cynical."
However, the past three years working with teens on a domestic violence project at Woodrow Wilson High School in urban east Los Angeles have changed that attitude.
She has become a champion of young teens, won over by their enthusiasm, energy and intensity. "It has been a wonderful, redeeming thing," she says.
Johnson was just one of a small group of lawyers in 16 communities across the state who participated this year in Law Works, a joint venture of the State Bar and the Citizenship & Law-Related Education Center in Sacramento.
Working in local schools, lawyers help students focus on an aspect of violence that affects their community, helping them to resolve the problem. Students, teachers, lawyers and community leaders work together.
Johnson, 43, a former entertainment lawyer who recently moved over to family law, Jana Hoffmann, 28, an Orange County deputy district attorney, and Karen MacDougall, 44, a former corporate and securities attorney who now heads a child abuse prevention organization, are just three of the state's lawyers who participated in Law Works this year.
Johnson hit the southern California freeways weekly, making the 50-mile round trip from her office to Wilson High, while up in rural Lake County, it took 45 minutes for Karen MacDougall to make the drive from Kelseyville to Middletown Middle School.
Jana Hoffmann didn't have to travel quite as far, but she could be seen dashing through the high school halls during her lunch hour, trying to squeeze in a sandwich and work with students on a weapons reporting project in between court appearances.
But all three lawyers say the rewards of working with the teens far outweigh the inconveniences.
"I love these kids," said Johnson. "I learned more than I could ever give." The process of watching the teens think, analyze and grow through the semester was "wonderful," she says.
After three years, Johnson feels she finally has a handle on the program and her role. "I didn't realize how I could access the legal community the first year," she said. But by the second year, when students decided to concentrate on gun violence, she managed to arrange for them to observe a court case dealing with robberies at a convenience store and chat with a local judge in his courtroom.
This year her class brainstormed and came up with a project to educate elementary school students about violence in the home. The students decided it was a subject that affected all of them and eventually spread out from the home to schools and neighborhoods.
Johnson arranged for the director of a domestic violence program to speak to the students and even paid for a few of them to go through the volunteer training session for another program.
The students called their project Violence Behind Closed Doors. They did some research, visited elementary schools and put together a video for the young students and their own peers.
MacDougall worked with a class of rural youngsters who wanted to focus on a project about handling potentially violent situations.
They wanted to deal with things like "threats, intimidation, nasty talk and all kinds of violence and fears," she said. They worked on non-violent solutions to real and perceived violence and even invited a karate instructor to the classroom.
It was a wonderful lesson for 12-and 13-year-olds, says MacDougall, because the instructor showed them how to walk away from violent situations while maintaining their pride and self-esteem.
The students also unexpectedly had a chance to apply some of their new-found legal knowledge in a "big kid vs. little kid" incident involving harassment and a broken watch.
Although from all appearances the little kid was the victim, their research proved the issue was not so clear-cut.
MacDougall was impressed with the intelligence of her students and says they have come away with some important life skills and have learned why law is critical in a democracy.
There seems to be a greater "buy-in" to the system once they learn about it and see there is no hidden agenda, she says.
Hoffmann's students at Santa Ana High School chose to tackle the issue of guns on campus "although it was not necessarily a problem -- they perceive their school as safe -- but they wanted to focus on preserving that safety," she said.
Hoffmann advised the students in several areas, such as setting up a moot court, producing anti-weapon fliers and organizing a school assembly. She even provided pictures of various weapons and the charges that would accompany their possession and use.
Hoffmann made herself available to answer questions about the legal system and in one instance found herself being grilled by a student who had some brushes with the juvenile system.
Ironically, she says, that student turned out to be one of the leaders of the class project. "He was outgoing, articulate and one of the main players," she said. "It was kind of neat to get a kid like that, showing him his potential without his realizing it."
It was a good experience, she says, and "they were a great class to work with. They asked great questions and they know what's going on in the streets."
Like Johnson and MacDougall, Hoffmann was impressed with the interest level and intelligence of the teens. She hopes to continue with Law Works, although "it's tough fitting it into my work schedule."
She may be doing a lunchtime dash through the high school halls again next year, says Hoffmann, but it's worth it. "And hopefully this program will help other students."