Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Southridge Students Shine in Criminal Justice Academy

Southridge Students Shine in Criminal Justice Academy
by José Pérez, Miami Times writer/photographer

“Order in the court!”  A tall baby-faced teen in a black polo shirt stands in a unique classroom in South Dade and calls his classmates to order.   Another session in Mr. Micah Israel’s Criminal Justice Academy at Southridge Senior High School is about to begin.

A retired police officer with almost 40 years of experience in law enforcement, Israel has spent the past three years teaching and preparing his students for successful careers in criminal justice and law enforcement.  From learning how to write police reports to the protocols of court proceedings, students in this Career Technical Education (CTE) program have the opportunity to learn marketable skills.  For example, students can take the E-911 Communications course while enrolled at Southridge and, if successful, can be certified to be hired as 911 call takers upon graduation. 

For many of the seniors in Israel’s second period class like Harry Davis, a football player who Israel calls his “top attorney,” law school beckons.  Being involved with mock trials and the Department of Juvenile Justice’s Teen Court program have played important roles for students who plan to enroll in law programs likes those at Florida International University and Florida A&M University to pursue their dreams of becoming lawyers.  The program also offers dual enrollment opportunities so students can earn college credits while they are still at Southridge.

Israel’s classroom looks more like a court room than a class room and that exactly what he wants.  The classes even function like courts, too.  “The Clerk takes attendance – just like in court,” said the smiling former cop.   In his classes, students act as attorneys but the acting goes beyond merely pretending.  “Students have to go through an application process which requires at least two years of criminal justice credits just to apply” to become student lawyers said Israel. These student attorneys can then represent clients in Teen Court, a program for first-time juvenile offenders designed to be an alternative to jail and therefore a stain on one’s record. 

“Good morning your Honor, Counsel and members of the jury.”

The students are also preparing for a statewide mock trial competition in Ocala coming up in February.  For example, after reviewing a recent quiz, students quickly “held” an arraignment in class with the duties of jury, clerk, prosecuting and defense attorneys, court reporter, and bailiff all being handled by students (the Honorable M. Spartan – aka Mr. Israel – presiding).

The Criminal Justice Academy at Southridge is one of only six in the county and the Public Service Academy is the only one in South Dade (Turner Tech has the only PSA in North Dade).

Jackie Gomez, a senior and the Clerk of Courts in Israel’s second period class, says her teacher’s success with students starts early.   “Mr. Israel teaches freshman and other new students to observe every little detail,” said Gomez.  “He shows films and asks students to find all of the mistakes to teach them to look for the obvious.”  Whether his students are freshmen or seniors, Israel is always teaching them to be “WIVES” (“wise, intelligent, very educated, and sharp”).

All of these successes are all the more impressive when one takes into consideration that Israel essentially built the program from scratch.  Using donated law books, coming out of his own pocket to buy a second hand karaoke machine to serve as his court’s “audio system,” or building the judge’s bench, jury box, and witness stand himself, Israel believes his example is an important one for his students.  “You can do it,” says the charismatic public school teacher who is proud of the fact that Southridge has gone from an “F” school three years ago to an “A” school today.

Still, Israel is always looking for additional resources to support the work he is doing for his students.  Israel has been happy to have some volunteers from the State Attorney’s Office come on their own to help and he said he is still waiting for the pledge to have an Assistant State Attorney come to help his students with Teen Court.

How serious is Israel about teaching his students all of the in’s and out’s of law enforcement?  “I hope to have a police car donated so I can train [the students] how to make traffic stops,” said Israel with all of the seriousness of King Solomon.