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.
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."
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.