Judge Brings Court To Olympia High School Students

Nov 28, 2017

There aren't typically a lot of high school students in courtrooms. But a judge in Thurston County is bringing the court to them.

A few dozen juniors and seniors at Olympia High School recently gathered in a small theater to watch small claims court.

Small claims are civil lawsuits brought for less than $5,000 in damages. The students saw a tenant suing over her security deposit and another person over property damage. Small claims are everyday disagreements that you wouldn't see in courtroom dramas.

But the students, mostly AP Government students, were surprisingly excited.

"We were all like super hyped for small claims court," said senior Sarah Gindy. "We would like chant it in the hallways."

Thurston County District Court Judge Brett Buckley was also surprised.

"They seemed glued to their seats and paying attention. I didn't see eyes closed or anything," Buckley said.

Buckley wanted to bring the court into the school to incorporate real life experiences into kids' civics education.

"They can talk about the academic issues in a classroom, but those questions that they raised today, they wouldn't have even known to ask them if they hadn't seen a proceeding," he said. "You've taken this veil of mystery off what happens in courts because they're seeing it on their own property in their room that's not a courtroom."

Moving from the courthouse to a high school wasn't especially difficult. Small claims proceedings are already public, so the court only had to notify the litigants of the change in location.

A judicial bench was set up in the form of a folding table near the top of the stage. There were also tables for the plaintiffs and defendants. Buckley still had to wear a black robe and the students still had to follow the rules of the courtroom, rising whenever the judge entered or exited the room.

There were a few reminders that we were not in a courtroom: announcements over the PA system and bells signaling passing periods.

Still, the students watched the entire process. There are no lawyers in small claims court, so the parties talk directly to the judge.

Of the seven cases on the calendar, four had both plaintiffs and defendants. One of those cases went to trial, while the other three were settled through mediation, which the students also got to see.

"Kids got to see these adult members of the community solve their problems," Buckley said.

The mediation we watched involved a man who had loaned his friend some money during hard times. The friend couldn't pay it back, which brought them to court. After intense discussion with a mediator, they came to an agreement that the friend would do yard work instead, something a judge couldn't have come up with.

Sarah Gindy, the senior, said watching the mediation changed her black-and-white view of the courtroom.

"I came into thinking that's the way this would that this would work. You're either right or wrong. But I think depending on personal background and situation, there's a lot of gray area, which is something I didn't really think about before this," she said.

Sarah and her classmates say they have been having a lot of political discussions at school, and they're not always nice conversations. The school is trying to start up its own peer mediation group in part to help facilitate these tense conversations.

"You sense the political divide has really intensified over the last few years," said social studies teacher Michael Schaffer. "The students, interestingly, the more politically divided we are the more the kids want to learn about the system."

Buckley saw the experiment as a success. The plan is to hold court at a different Thurston County high school once per quarter, with North Thurston up next.