By Matthew Jackson
Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Tarrant County
What is the difference between reasonable suspicion and probable cause? What determines if evidence will be admitted in a trial? What are my rights while peacefully protesting? These are questions that many people cannot answer. But prosecutors can—and some of us in the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office have partnered with local schools to teach high school students the answers to these questions and many more.
Our Criminal District Attorney, Sharen Wilson, has always encouraged us to get involved in the community. Prosecutors in the office often spoke to community groups, typically reaching 20,000 citizens each year. “Not surprising in the COVID year of 2020, our presentations decreased dramatically,” Ms. Wilson says. “As we continued to hear about the hurdles for schools to re-open, the idea was born of offering our prosecutors as educators.” In late July, Ms. Wilson talked with several school trustees and pitched the idea of prosecutors teaching high school students about criminal justice. Her plan was to take an existing program of our office, Citizens Prosecutor Academy, and adapt its curriculum for high schoolers. “It would not only help the school districts but also keep our good lawyers in speaking and explaining mode—not unlike voir dire,” Ms. Wilson explained. Officials in the Fort Worth Independent School District (FWISD) received the idea well, and in early August, steps were taken to make the program a reality. Prosecutors in High School (PHS) was born.
How it works
Amy Bearden, who is our community outreach coordinator, and I began meeting via Zoom with FWISD authorities to design the program. Through these meetings, the PHS team selected topics, dates for the presentations, and speakers to best fit the audience.
Prosecutors in High School includes presentations from prosecutors, investigators, and other staff members. The topics are:
• First Amendment rights;
• arrest, search, and seizure;
• the process of a trial; and
• investigations and forensic evidence.
Our office opted to present each topic four times per semester to senior history classes from six of the 21 local high schools. This program lets our office interact with about 750 students during each presentation in the 2020-21 school year. Students and teachers are provided a Zoom link to access the live presentations. Zoom’s webinar format allows students from all six schools to view the presentations simultaneously. Students can participate live by asking questions in the Q&A box.
After months of preparation, the stage finally was set, and everyone was excited to begin this creative way of impacting the community. The first PowerPoint presentation was finalized, the dry run was a success, and we were days away from local students learning about their First Amendment rights directly from prosecutors. Everything had gone smoothly throughout the planning process; we had selected engaging topics, found knowledgeable presenters, and even overcame some technical difficulties.
Then, right before “showtime,” we hit a snag. Due to COVID-19, the students’ return to live instruction from virtual learning was delayed for two weeks. So the PHS team reluctantly postponed the first presentation. We were disappointed but not deterred and rescheduled for three weeks away.
Finally, November 17 and 18 came. During a morning and afternoon session on both days, Investigator Don Pilcher and I taught the dynamics of arrest, search, and seizure law to the students. We were excited to see that they asked questions in the Q&A box, and we were so relieved to complete all four sessions of the first phase without any technical issues. The inaugural phase of Prosecutors in High School was a success!
The program continued its success December 1 and 2 with the second phase, “Process of a Trial,” presented by ACDAs Marcus Hanna and Jordan Rolfe-Stimpson. The students remained engaged during this second phase, and each subsequent presentation was better than the previous one. By their fourth session, the interplay between Marcus and Jordan was simply poetic. You could tell that they had found their comfort zone on camera as they flowed through the material.
Here’s what two FWISD officials thought of the program:
“The first day of the Prosecutors in High School Webinar Series was terrific. Thank you all so much for your tremendous hard work. Marcus and Jordan were great!” —Jennifer Cole, CTE Coordinator IV
“Y’all did a great job this morning. I really appreciated how empowering the content was for students.” —Xavier Pantoja, K-12 Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator
A local news station showed an interest in the program and interviewed Ms. Rolfe-Stimpson about it and about her presentation topic (the process of a trial). During the interview, she discussed the goals of the program and some of the questions that students asked throughout her presentations. Students wanted to know when they must give a peace officer their name, how a case gets no-billed, what determines if a jury is sequestered, and what a prosecutor’s favorite part of the job is. She emphasized how important it is to make sure young people understand how the criminal justice system works and what career opportunities are available in this field.
“Prosecutors in High School gives us the opportunity to educate and reach an important part of our community we otherwise would not have the opportunity to speak to directly,” Ms. Rolfe-Stimpson says. “The students seem to enjoy the program, and it has been wonderful for us as well.”
The goal is to build trust between students and those who work in the criminal justice system. By developing this unique program, we had to pick topics of interest to students in today’s society, make sure our presenters conveyed the material in a way that relates to and engages a younger audience, and adjust to all the complexities presented by the pandemic.
Another Prosecutors in High School class was held December 15 and 16, and prosecutors taught students about their First Amendment Rights. The final topic of the fall semester, “Investigations & Forensic Evidence,” was presented in January. All four topics will be presented again to students enrolled in the spring semester history classes, and we are confident of continued success.
“Many of our seniors who are enrolled in Government classes will interact with professionals in the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office in a way most people never do,” FWISD Superintendent Kent P. Scriber said when the program was beginning. “It is exciting to have our local industry practitioners coming to our classrooms and showing students how what they are learning in class is used daily in our community.”
Other interested ISDs have approached us about expanding to their schools. It’s been a nice silver lining in the dark cloud of COVID-19.