Justice Project police officer Jenna Barbagiovanni examines the shoes of mock-murder suspect Jeremy Dillon Tuesday in downtown Houston.

In a three-week operation bolstered by numerous people involved in the justice system in Texas County, a select group of 32 high school students are getting a close look at what jobs within that system entail.

Called “The Justice Project,” the program is the brainchild of Texas County associate circuit judge Doug Gaston, who organized it and coordinated the efforts of the various participating agencies and individuals.

“My main goal with it is our young people fall more in love with our Constitution and our country,” Gaston said. “I’d like them to have a love of freedom in their hearts and understand that the only way they can keep their freedom is if we have a system that keeps justice, too.”

Ranging from freshmen to seniors, students in the project are primarily focusing on tasks performed by and interaction between people from three entities involved in the United States’ criminal justice system: law enforcement, judicial and press. With the guidance of local law enforcement officers, attorneys, judges, medical representatives and reporters, the students will learn how the wheels turn in all aspects of the American justice system.

“The kids are going to be taken from the 911 call to the sentencing process,” Houston High School principal Brenda Dennis said. “They’re really going to get an idea of what happens from the time an incident takes place to the time its case is complete. It’s just a great opportunity for these kids to see what people in these different careers do on a daily basis.”

The project began last week with a mock arrest and trial of Houston Herald editor Jeff McNiell, who was handcuffed and even mock-tased when he spoke out against the government and the establishment as Gaston was addressing the student group in a courtroom. The idea was to speculate about what it would be like if Americans didn’t have freedom of speech and highlight the fact that in some countries, people don’t.

“If the doors could be locked and people could be treated that way without the press being able to report on it, how would anyone ever know?” Gaston said.

On Tuesday of this week, a mock homicide resulting from a drug deal gone bad was staged and investigated in a vacant building in downtown Houston. The scene was complete with community citizens acting out the roles of criminal, victim and witness, and students acting (and even dressed) as police officers, emergency medical technicians, coroners and press. Realism was added by law enforcement and medical response vehicles arriving at the scene with lights and sirens, and students were walked through their tasks with a real representatives of their given jobs mentoring at their sides.

The enactment even concluded with the enactment of a press conference.

Following each day’s segment of the project, leaders from the career fields involved conduct briefings with students, including question-and-answer sessions.

“A lot of people have donated their time to give these kids a true hands-on experience of what these careers entail and shed a different perspective as to what our jobs are,” Houston Police Chief Jim McNiell said. “Some of this might plant a seed in some of these young people – this is an excellent opportunity to open their eyes to what we do as law enforcement officers and what other people in the criminal justice field do.”

HHS teachers in the American government and political science realms will incorporate aspects of the project in their curriculum.

“I really appreciate all the agencies coming together and it’s taking a lot of work from a lot of people,” Dennis said. “I feel fortunate to be involved, and this is a great way for kids to get some valuable real-world experience.”

The project will conclude next Tuesday, with the shooting suspect being put on trial in a courtroom at the Texas County Justice Center, a scene that will include students acting as judge, jury and attorneys for the defense and prosecution. Students working on the press side of things took photographs this week at the crime scene and will write stories about the case.

“This gives them the knowledge and experience of what to report and how to report it,” McNiell said.

Gaston said in order for the United States to properly function as a free nation, it’s critical to have people in law enforcement, judicial roles and press working toward a similar end.

“If we don’t have all three working with the same goal in mind, then we’re all in trouble,” he said. “If you don’t have law enforcement and the courts seeking justice, and you don’t have a press there to freely record what goes on, then our country doesn’t work.”

Gaston believes he has a duty to prepare young people for their roles in society, and he respects others who are helping him do so through The Justice Project.

“I think it’s beautiful,” he said. “I love our little community, and one of the reasons is because we help each other out. My personal feeling is, part of my responsibility in the position I hold is to make lots of effort to assure that the next generation is going to be ready to carry the mantle.”

McNiell said the possibility exists of making the project an annual event, with students at all Texas County schools participating on a rotating basis.

“I think it’s a great opportunity and a great adventure,” he said.

Gaston said the bottom line is helping students form a better understanding and appreciation of why healthy, functioning justice system are important to the lives they live.

“Hopefully we can drive home the message with them a little more that the reason all these things exist is because our founders provided for them and that many people around the world aren’t blessed with all of the protections that we have,” he said.

“We hope that if they can touch it, feel it and experience it, it will be more meaningful to them.”

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