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These are serious cases. This is not a mock trial, it is not scripted. It is a real live process.
BROWNSVILLE — Marisol Perez had just seen something rare and significant.
She’d watched as the Honorable Judge Gloria Rincones held the 445 State District Court in the auditorium of Veterans Memorial Early College High School.
“I think it was very informative to really show what goes on deep within the system, to understand everything that really goes on,” said Marisol, 17, a junior at Veterans Memorial.
Defendants facing drug charges gathered on stage with judges, defense attorneys and procedures before a packed auditorium to show students how the court process takes place in cases involving drug offenses and plea agreements.
“Welcome to the first Robert Patrick Rodriguez Courts in Schools,” Rincones said. “These are serious cases. This is not a mock trial, it is not scripted. It is a real live process.”
The event was named after Assistant District Attorney Robert Patrick Rodriguez who died quite suddenly in 2019. Rodriguez had been passionate about the concept of holding real court cases in schools to help young people understand more clearly the justice system. Hopefully seeing these things more closely could help steer young people away from criminal behavior.
“We are bringing the judicial systems to the schools to give them a front row perspective of the judicial system and to give them access to all the disciplines in our judicial system and open their minds and interests to these professions,” Rincones said.
The students began learning of the reality of court proceedings the moment they entered the glass doors of their school’s auditorium. They walked through portable metal detectors which sounded off caustic buzzes.
“No cell phones or backpacks,” called out Principal Linda Gallegos as students stepped to a table of trays after another officer had swept a wand over them.
Gallegos was clearly excited about Veterans Memorial being chosen for the event.
“We have multiple law enforcement agencies working in collaboration to ensure the safety of all and that it runs smoothly,” she said. “I think it is a great opportunity for students to see the whole process of court proceedings. We have multiple judges, we have Border patrol, BISD police, Brownsville P.D. We also have the sheriff’s department and SWAT team. It’s an awesome collaboration of law enforcement agencies.”
Gallegos said she hoped that the seeing of the proceedings and the learning of it will encourage students to avoid activities that would put them in the situation of the men in handcuffs and orange jumpsuits. Rincones agreed.
“We are having such a big problem with the Vape pens and the drugs and everything in the entire school system, so I hope they heed the message that it is serious,” Rincones said. “There are serious consequences. There are prison sentences and state jail sentences and so the consequences are serious. They can lose their civil liberties.”
Claudio Vasquez spoke to the students about losing his civil liberties for six years after entering a guilty plea for second-degree felony possession of a controlled substance.
“That’s six years away from my family, six years away from my son,” Vasquez said. “You have to understand, just say no to drugs.”
This being a real courtroom, Rincones demonstrated how the cases are handled with the official dialogues that come with all cases of this type. All four cases involved drug charges and plea agreements.
“Mr. Vasquez, it’s my understanding you wish to plead guilty to the charge in the indictment against you,” she said.
“Are you a citizen of the United States? Are you pleading guilty freely and voluntarily? Have you ever been deemed to be incompetent or treated for any type of mental disorder?”
Students spoke after Rincones completed all four cases and asked questions which indicated clearly they’d paid close attention throughout the proceedings. One expressed admiration for the ability to remember the dialogue between the judge and the defendant and other concerned parties. Another asked about nerves going into a courtroom. One pointed out that while three defendants were in orange jumpsuits while the fourth wore street clothes.
Rincones explained the man in street clothes was not yet in custody, and he was included to show someone being taken into custody after pleading guilty to a drug charge.
Students appreciated the presentation.
“It was a good experience,” said Helio Gutierrez, 16, a sophomore.
“I have never seen a trial in person, so it was my first time,” Gutierrez said. “It’s good what they are doing, bringing the court to students so students can see how a trial is conducted.”
It was indeed a great start to a new endeavor, the beginning of many. Officials plan to hold Courts in Schools throughout Cameron County beginning in August.