The people seated in the jury box in a Royal Oak judge's courtroom on Wednesday weren't from the typical jury pool.
They were kids. Fifth-graders to be precise.
Students from Oak Ridge Elementary visited Judge Derek Meinecke's courtroom at the 44th District Court building for a close-up look at the justice system. During the visit, students toured the building, including Meinecke's office, and witnessed real-life criminal court proceedings that gave them a chance to experience the system in action.
The Kids Court Visit is a city-wide program that represents the collective efforts of three Royal Oak institutions, the court, the schools and the police department.
To prep students for what they would witness in court, Meinecke went to Oak Ridge Elementary on Tuesday and explained how probation reviews worked.
"The whole goal of probation is to make sure somebody knows what they did was wrong and they should never do it again, but you also want to make sure that you're giving a person tools to make sure they make the right decisions in the future," Meinecke told the students.
At the ended of his presentation he gave students a list of vocabulary words and asked that each child learn the definition of one word overnight. He also asked students to take notes while they were in the court.
"Judge (Terrence) Brennan has encouraged this project, and the entire court staff has embraced this special event for the youth of our community. Superintendent Shawn Lewis-Lakin, the Royal Oak School Board, the principals of all elementary schools in our city, public and parochial, the fifth grade teachers and the parents who chaperoned their children have all played a significant role in making the Kids Court Visit happen," Meinecke said.
Day in court
On Wednesday, students filed into their places in the jury box. They sat quietly and took notes as the judge had asked. During breaks, Meinecke asked students to stand and give the definitions of the vocabulary words they learned overnight.
Students watched and listened as people came before the judge to give him an update on their probation. Meinecke was quick to congratulate those who were following his orders.
"Everyone makes mistakes and poor choices. It's what we do when we make those mistakes that defines us," said Meinecke as he praised a man for being in compliance in his last three probation reviews.
The man told the judge the therapy he was undergoing was working.
"I am ready to turn my life around," the man told the judge. "I am working and I am going back to school. I have completed two classes already."
Another man told Meinecke, "I am trying to play by your rules and I am doing tremendously better."
"I enjoy seeing your progress," Meinecke said. "Every time I see you, you look better."
As the young man left the courtroom, two older adults patted him on back and smiled.
Unfortunately, students witnessed the judge sentence a 22-year-old woman, who tested positive for heroin and marijuana, to jail.
"This is extremely disappointing," Meinecke told the woman. "I am sorry I can not be a part of the solution to your addiction. I hope you find the key to get past it."
The courtroom experience left an impression on the students and teachers.
"It was fun and interesting to watch," said Olivia Ellerholz, 11. "I learned if you don't do what the judge asks you will go to jail."
Teacher Gail Granett described the experience as "fabulous."
"It's really important to teach students the consequences of good and bad choices and to do it while they are young. They are really soaking this up," Granett said.
Inside the Royal Oak police station
The program concluded with a tour of the Royal Oak police station.
After raising their right hands and taking a oath to be good sons and daughters, students and citizens, Lt. Bill Sawyer gave students badges and declared them honoree junior police officers.
The police station tour included a presentation of the types of equipment officers use, how evidence is collected and how calls to the department are dispatched. Students also got to sit in the back of a patrol car and visit detectives on the second floor.
Lt. Dave Clemens and Sgt. Al Carter of the Criminal Investigations Division were complimented for their dapper appearances. One of the students noted the gentlemen were wearing good looking ties. And Officer Andy Izydorek wowed students with a first-hand look at the technology inside a police car and a demonstration of how light bars and sirens work.
"Chief (Corrigan) O’Donohue and the entire Royal Oak Police Department, by making time to give the students tours of the police department, have helped complete this memorable experience. It really shows what Royal Oak can do when everyone works together for a common purpose," Meinecke said.