A group of Riverside County lawyers and a judge have won national recognition for a mentoring program they do with Toro Canyon Middle School in Thermal that gives the east valley students an inside look at the justice system and how it works.
Normally held in person at the school, the American Inns of Court recognized members of the local chapter, Warren Slaughter-Richard Roemer American Inns of Court, that transitioned its 2021 presentation to a virtual program during the pandemic, reaching more than 300 students.
“We were basically the only Inn in the country to be able to do any kind of outreach in that year,” said team member Riverside County Superior Court Judge Kira Klatchko.
American Inns of Court is a national organization formed in the 1970s. It is an association of lawyers, judges and other legal professionals from all levels and backgrounds who build relationship and mentoring programs in their communities.
The Warren Slaughter-Richard Roemer American Inns of Court of Indian Wells was formed more than 20 years ago and includes legal professionals from throughout the Coachella Valley.
Slaughter was a well-respected Riverside County Superior Court judge in Indio who had practiced civil law in Palm Springs before his appointment to the bench.
Roemer practiced law for more than 50 years in the valley, and was the founder and creator of the local Inn, said Brian Harnik, member of the local American Inns of the Court chapter who has been participating in the outreach program for more than 15 years .
The group meets monthly most of the year and breaks into teams, three of which do community outreach programs at different middle schools in the desert – Toro Canyon, Palm Desert and Nellie Coffman, covering each of the three school districts, said Harnik.
The group chose to work with eighth-graders because they are learning about civics and the United States Constitution, Harnik said.
Teams include one judge and six attorneys of varying backgrounds and specialties who teach about criminal and civil law.
Carrying on with limitations
It was the team that does a weeklong program for eighth-graders at Toro Canyon Middle School in Thermal that received the American Inns of the Court’s 2021 Best Special Project Award. The award was presented July 23 at the black-tie Inns of Distinction gala at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC
Normally, the weeklong program is done in person in the classroom, culminating with a field trip to the Larson Justice Center in Indio.
At the justice center, students tour the courthouse, sit in on a hearing and do a mock trial in which they take on the roles of judges, lawyers, jurors and court reporters. Klatchko is president of the local American Inns of Court chapter, and on the Toro Canyon team.
“We rapidly converted what is traditionally an in-person program, where we went to the school and the students came to us at the court, to a completely virtual program,” Klatchko said.
Even with limited resources, the team was able to reach more than 300 students with a virtual program that included discussions on bullying, sexting, fighting and recording the fights for social media – all timely topics.
“These things are so commonplace that sometimes they (the students) don’t realize that they’re wrong, and that’s a little bit alarming. That there’s not enough information for them to say, ‘hey, these things are not correct, and should not be done,’” Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Rosalind Miller said. “With social media, they see so much of it that they’re desensitized to it and don’t realize that it’s not appropriate behavior.”
As an example, there is a trend now for students to fight, film the fight and post it to social media, said Miller, who attended the Inns of Distinction Gala at the Supreme Court to accept the award on the team’s behalf.
“The problem is, they get so much reinforcement for it,” she said.
Reinforcement that comes through hits on social media, which is exciting for them, Miller said.
“But it’s not right. People can get seriously injured, (and) it encourages other people to do inappropriate behavior, and it rewards it,” she said.
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There is also a “Kids and the Law” presentation, which helps the students understand what happens when they turn 18, and how the penalties and treatment in court may change with adulthood.
During the 2021 program, students were able to interact with the presenters through a series of poll questions, which students answered anonymously to encourage feedback and more candid responses.
“So, it’s not just a cut-and-dry program about civics,” Klatchko said.
While students could not visit the courthouse last year, Klatchko took them on a live virtual tour of her courtroom. People from her team of court interpreters, reporters, deputies and other personnel each took time to explain their jobs and interact with the students, answering their questions, as well.
“Many of our staff are local people who have grown up here,” Klatchko said. The judge is also a Coachella Valley native, and said the program is an opportunity for her to give back to the community.
Beyond lessons of the law
The program is presented in April, but the team begins meeting with Toro Canyon teacher and liaison Eddie Mendez in October to begin working on
“He’s (Mendez) just really fabulous and makes me and the others feel really good about the education of our students,” Miller said. “Because he’s somebody that is so passionate and cares so much about his students, about their futures, about their education.”
The group’s first outreach program was in 2000 at Toro Canyon, Klatchko said, adding it may have been the first outreach program nationwide.
The program’s foundational focus is teaching students about the justice system, some of the laws and how they apply in everyday life.
The program has other pluses as well in that it gives students the opportunity to meet and know members of the legal profession in a positive environment, and it shows them possible career opportunities they may not otherwise know or thought to pursue down the road.
“This is a really positive thing for the kids,” said Mendez, who has been working with the program for about six years.
Students are 13 and 14 years old, and “enjoy all the cool stories the lawyers and the judge have to tell,” he said.
They ask “what’s the craziest case you’ve had. But they have a lot of questions that have to do with the law and how it applies to them, especially when it comes to things that they’re going through … like cyberbullying, and fighting is a big deal at school,” Mendez said.
A lot of the kids in the east valley struggle with legal issues within their homes, including domestic violence, substance abuse issues and restraining orders, he said.
“So, the only access they have had to the legal system has been on the other side,” Mendez said.
This program allows them to have a positive interaction with the judge and lawyers and help them understand how the judicial system works, Mendez said.
They ask thoughtful questions, he said, based on their personal experiences, and learn the lawyers and judges are not their enemies.
“That’s what I love about this program. It gives them the chance to experience the other side of the coin,” Mendez said. “I feel like they are growing a lot.”
Desert Sun reporter Sherry Barkas covers the cities of La Quinta, Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert. She can be reached at sherry.[email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @TDSsherryBarkas
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