Ask 15th Judicial Circuit Judge John Phillips and Delray Beach attorney Sheri Hazeltine about their Justice Teaching experiences, and you will receive a sincere and heartwarming response.
Although Justice Teaching volunteers throughout Florida visit both public and private schools, the experiences of Judge Phillips and Hazeltine as volunteers to the Royal Palm School are different from most others.
The Royal Palm School has the largest population of disabled students in Palm Beach County. According to Hazeltine, many of the students are in wheelchairs due to various physical movement limitations. Although at times it can be difficult for them to communicate, these students are intelligent and can understand the Justice Teaching material being presented to them, she said.
“The assumption by the public and persons unfamiliar with many of the students is that they cannot understand anything,” Hazeltine said. “This is not true at all.”
As the parent of a child at the Royal Palm School, Hazeltine was not inhibited by such preconceptions, and last year she decided to introduce Justice Teaching to the school. She invited Judge Phillips to join her. Both Judge Phillips and Hazeltine were a little uncertain as the date for their first visit arrived, regarding how much could be accomplished, but those concerns were quickly dispelled.
“To be honest, I had a lot of doubts about my ability to teach anything meaningful about the law the first time I visited the school in May 2009,” Judge Phillips said. “However, after meeting Ms. Brodsky and Ms. Boyd, all the students, and all of their assistants, I launched into my presentation armed with my robe and a huge outsized gavel. The kids were so open to everything I had to say, had lots of questions, and seemed to respond eagerly.”
Since that initial visit, Judge Phillips and Hazeltine have returned to the Royal Palm School multiple times and conducted Justice Teaching presentations. During the visits, Phillips and Hazeltine use a modified form of the ESE exercises available on the Justice Teaching website.
In addition, they ensure that each session is characterized by something special (a “hook,” as described by Judge Phillips) to capture the students’ attention — such as a giant gavel, a Santa hat, or a floppy magician’s cap modeled after the Johnny Carson character Carnac the Magnificent. Judge Phillips also brings souvenirs for each student to take home — including pocket Constitutions, patriotic stickers, Law Day stickers, keychains, and, most recently, race car stickers.
Those feelings of gratitude are not one-directional. Judge Phillips freely shares that the students and teachers of the Royal Palm School are the heart and soul of his Justice Teaching experience.
“It has been lots of fun. I’ve come to really love these kids, and I am so inspired by their teachers, assistants, and the parents,” he said. “Truly, I have received so much more from these visits than I have given. Over the years, I appeared at any school that would have me for Law Week and other opportunities to teach students about the court system. I would not trade my Justice Teaching experience at the Royal Palm School for anything else I’ve ever done in our community. I hope to be invited back many times in the future.”
Judge Phillips and Hazeltine said they hope that sharing their experiences at the Royal Palm School will motivate other attorneys and judges to reach out to ESE schools through Justice Teaching. Both have offered to assist other Justice Teaching volunteers who may be interested in establishing a relationship with similar schools around Florida.
To learn more about becoming involved in Justice Teaching, visit www.justiceteaching.org.