A group of Sumter teens got a firsthand look at the court system when they took a field trip to Sumter County Judicial Center on Thursday.
The seventh- and eighth-graders at Alice Drive Middle School sat through four trials involving juveniles to understand how the family court system works.
Tonia Burns-Taylor, instructor of the school's character education class, said the elective course teaches students to take responsibility for their actions and face the consequences - good and bad - that come afterward. They are learning to be productive members of society, she said.
Public defender Calvin Hastie - also a Sumter city councilman - guided the students through what was most likely the first court visit for many.
He said the experience is meant to encourage young people to make better decisions after witnessing someone their age go through a court trial.
As an attorney, Hastie said he wants to help his clients as best he can. People make mistakes but sometimes can make better decisions if they are given a second chance.
However, if someone returns to court for a second time, other methods such as a detention sentence or counseling may be necessary, he said.
Hastie told the students about the different duties of the public defender, prosecutor and judge.
The presiding family court judge on Thursday was Gordon B. Jenkinson.
The judge is a good person who is tasked with making tough decisions, Hastie said, and who wants the defendant to have a productive life.
Hastie's words regarding the judge were acted out during a trial for a 16-year-old boy who was arrested for bringing box cutter to school.
The student had previously spent about two years in a juvenile detention center since 2015 before he was released in September.
The teen's defense attorney said the student -who was working to turn his life around since leaving the detention center - put the knife in his bag after assisting his stepfather to open packages for his job. He did not threaten anyone with the knife, and he gave it to authorities when asked, the attorney said.
By the date of his trial, the teen had already spent nearly 30 days in a juvenile detention center after he was arrested in October.
Thinking that the student learned his lesson, Jenkinson sentenced the teen to 30 days time served, which allowed him to go home after the trial.
Judge Jenkinson was not as lenient for another 16-year-old who refused to go to school.
The student was given two opportunities to avoid a detention sentence but did not take advantage of either, according to James Stoddard, the assistant solicitor.
Jenkinson sentenced the teen to 180 days in a juvenile detention facility. He said the student would be released earlier if he completes his GED.
Burns-Taylor said Thursday was the class's first trip and that she hopes for them to participate in a service project before the end of the year.