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Scared Straight With Judge Kimberly Small

The 48th District Court judge presided at Berkshire Middle School and sent students a strong message about choices.

It doesn't take long for the Berkshire Middle School cafeteria to get loud. Like any open space filled with eighth graders, the chatter and raw excitement about a break from the classroom can elevate in a just matter of seconds.

Yet it took even less time for 48th District Court Judge Kimberly Small to silence and command the attention of the crowd of about 100 students Friday as she entered the room in her black robe, ready to go to work. 

With special permission from the State Court Administrative Office, Small transformed the cafeteria to a courtroom and presided over three cases that represented her usual criminal docket. The special demonstration is part of a larger program Small — a Bloomfield product and University of Michigan graduate — organizes annually to emphasize the importance of making good choices, at any age.

Sobering Moment

Two of the three defendants before Small ended the proceedings in handcuffs — provided by Birmingham Police Officer Josh Husted — when sentenced to the Oakland County Jail for drunken driving and retail fraud, respectively. Jeremy Runstadler, 26, pleaded guilty to operating while intoxicated, second offense for driving after having the equivalent of about a dozen drinks at a wedding on Nov. 30. 

Bloomfield Township police officers arrested him after he ran a red light and showed a blood-alcohol level of .12, according to reports read aloud by Small. True to her reputation for being tough on drunken drivers, the former prosecutor ordered Runstadler to a year in jail, with four months to be served immediately. He faces the rest if he fails to complete probation and treatment for a drinking problem rooted in something much deeper than even he realized before facing Small Friday.

Not only did he show remorse for his actions, Runstadler acknowledged that his alcoholism is symptomatic of a low self esteem that breeds negative thoughts. At Small's urging, he turned to face the crowd of students and teachers — and the infinite number of friends and relatives they represent — and apologized.

"I realize I exposed innocent people to danger, and I know better than to get behind the wheel under the influence," he said, in tears. "I hope these kids will not make the same decision I did."

The poignant moment struck student Savannah Simmons as powerful.

"He's done this before an didn't learn his lesson," Simmons explained. "But when he looked back at us you could see it meant something. He was emotional, and ashamed of all that he's done."

Making Choices

While the first 45 minutes of her visit is all business, Small then gets interactive and personal with the students during a casual presentation. Each case represented very real situations the students can find themselves in. Each one also amplified the impact and consequences of poor choices. Small made sure the students understood the weight of what they witnessed by asking questions and proposing hypothetical scenarios young teens can relate to.

She also drew on her own experiences of keeping questionable friends in middle school, until she made the personal realization that friends should empower and uplift, not hinder. The choices they make, even now in eighth grade, can have a huge impact, she insisted.

"The tough part for me is knowing that people limit their lives by the decisions they make," Small said during the proceedings. It will be time well spent if  it prevents any of the students from appearing in her court again.

"I love what I can do from the bench, but I really love what I can do through the bench out in the community," she said.

Courteney Gettel April 28, 2013 at 03:55 PM
Judge Small came to Derby Middle School in March. This isn't the first time 48th District has come to the middle schools. In fact, it is an annual event. The judges in the court are really great at what they do. There is even an elementary field trip that students take to the court and they get to watch a case happen and then they get to ask questions after the case has been resolved. Although drug and alcohol offenses are awful, I, as a parent, would like to see the judges bring in cases that are even more relevant to kids these ages such as cyber bullying, sexting, etc. I am sure many parents would be upset at this, but incidents like that begin in middle school and then are exacerbated in high school. Just my opinion.
canseeallsides April 29, 2013 at 06:45 AM
NO ONE SEES ANY ISSUES WITH THIS?!?!?! Bring random people charged with crimes to a middle school to display the states power - BRILLIANT! Maybe just pass support back to parents and educate based on their direction? I will never vote for this judge. It sure is fun how trauma can be used as a teaching tool. :-\ I'm scared straight but for a completely different reason than the one intended. I am scared for the judgement of these officials in power. Who approved this within the schools? when was the public discussion?
Karen Frank April 29, 2013 at 04:05 PM
In their attempt to alter young people’s behavior, the legal system is using bullying tactics. Threatening, intimidating, mean spirited tactics meant to hurt and punish. The old: “fear of consequences is the best deterrent” form of behavior modification. So old school and so wrong. On one hand, as a society, we are teaching our children the wrongs of bullying in an effort to make them more empathetic and compassionate human beings. And then, at the same time, we are demonstrating in classrooms the full bullying tactics employed by the legal system. That’s what I see -- this great and harmful contradiction (and yes, hypocrisy).
Courteney Gettel April 30, 2013 at 12:24 AM
Ok I think the comments above missed the entire point of the article. Kids these days are too arrogant to truly see what the consequences of their actions can result in. I think it really has to do with how they are disciplined when they are younger. These days "timeouts" and "no no nos" are the way kids are "disciplined." While these techniques may work on some, they don't work on all. Showing kids that if they decide to make the wrong choice can result in places like jail, might not be such a bad thing. I remember once that an old boyfriend's father took him off to sit in a jail cell when he decided to take his anger out on me. That resulted in the boyfriend never doing that again. So my friends, is that bullying or true discipline?
canseeallsides April 30, 2013 at 04:17 AM
I see the point they are making quite clearly. I just FIRMLY disagree with it. That level of discipline is very personal and up to the parent. The level does not have to be the same answer to be right action for that family or each individual. Both levels maybe the "right way". I hear discipline being said but should be called a terror tactic. I respect your discipline view and suggest you perform it AWAY from shared public forums including school. Take your child to jail for a day, I prefer to teach my kids INCLUDING the choices being made here as another opportunity to talk, teach and listen to them. Caution, strong opinion follows: I will never prefer a method to traumatize (SHOCK) them into submission and obedience. Be firm and I respect you but call it what it is, it's terrorism. Definition of TERROR 1 : a state of intense fear 2 a : one that inspires fear : scourge b : a frightening aspect <the terrors of invasion> c : a cause of anxiety : worry d : an appalling person or thing; especially : brat 3 : reign of terror 4 : violent or destructive acts (as bombing) committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands <insurrection and revolutionary terror>
Courteney Gettel April 30, 2013 at 01:03 PM
May I ask where your children go to school? If it is in the Birmingham School System, then I suggest that when the judges come to your school (and they will), that you keep your kids home for the day. This way they won't be "terrorized." I truly wish you peace. As for my children, they are not "terorrized." In fact, I get compliments all the time about how wonderfully, well-mannered they are - not just from other parents, but from school officials as well. So I must be doing something right including having them listen to what "could" happen should they make a wrong choice in life.
Karen Frank April 30, 2013 at 07:31 PM
Let’s be clear: There are very real and horrifying instances of misconduct. That these offenses should be investigated and prosecuted where appropriate is not open to question. No one supports crime. No one supports underage drinking. Drunk driving cannot and will not be tolerated. No one wants their child to experiment with drugs. As our children grow up, we -- parents, teachers, the culture as a whole -- tell them that good kids abstain, bad ones use. Yet over 80 percent of America's children will at least try alcohol or other drugs. Do we really believe that most of our children are bad? As a pediatrician told me: "These aren't bad kids. They're our kids." By moralizing the choice to use or not, we're alienating our kids. This isn't a question of good and bad, it's a question of health and safety. If we keep this in mind, we can better help our kids grow up without succumbing to drugs and alcohol. We've failed to prevent use because we've done most things wrong by focusing on drugs as a criminal and moral problem, and on scare tactics and hyperbole.

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