MISSION — “Have you seen ‘Judge Judy?’” District Judge Keno Vasquez asked a room full of Mission school district high school students Friday. “Well this is not it.”
Vasquez, along with the 389th District Court’s entire retinue of lawyers, law officers, clerks and prisoners were at Mission High Friday morning as part of Hidalgo County’s Courts in Schools program, founded two years ago by Vasquez and District Judges Luis Singleterry and Renee Rodriguez-Betancourt.
The goal of the program is to bring court proceedings to local high schools as an educational opportunity. About 800 students from all three Mission high schools were in the stands Friday to watch court proceedings for a number of individuals, mostly facing charges related to drugs and drunk driving.
“Remember, this is my courtroom now. It does not belong to Mission CISD,” Vasquez said before the proceedings began. “So we have deputies here, officers here — if you do not act properly, you will be held in contempt.”
Shackles jangled as the first defendant shuffled behind the podium. She was facing charges related to drug possession.
The 43-year-old woman had been to Mission High before, as a student. She was expelled and never graduated.
Ultimately the woman was sentenced to five years in prison, a more lenient punishment than what the state was seeking.
“This is your last chance,” Vasquez said. “If you get out and you recommit, you belong to me. You’re in my court, and I’m not going to forget you.”
The next person behind the podium was also an alumnus of Mission High — but she wasn’t wearing shackles.
“She’s an attorney and she’s from this area,” Vasquez said.
According to Vasquez, one of the program’s biggest benefits is exposing students to careers in law.
“It’s a deterrent, and also a motivator for what you can become,” he said. “From a court reporter to a deputy, from a lawyer to a judge, I want to give them that exposure to it.”
Vasquez said he believes that’s especially important for female students. He says he recently met a Valley student who wasn’t aware women could be attorneys.
“It’s 2020, how can we have that, how can they believe that in this age? That’s important. That’s why if I can bring female attorneys that can be here, my prosecutor’s a female, to expose them to what they can be,” he said. “I think it’s important to empower women. I might be a little bit biased because I have daughters, but I think it’s important they understand what they can accomplish and it’s important that they can see it firsthand.”
Noevelyn Garza, a senior at Mission High, sat next to Vasquez through all eight items on the docket.
“I think that it’s a really great opportunity for students to see. Most of us have never been in a court setting, so I just think it’s a really good opportunity to see as a high school student what type of future you can take on, whether you go down a good path or a bad path,” she said.
Garza, an aspiring law student, said the experience gave her insight into the profession she hopes to enter one day.
“I definitely learned that this career is a fast paced job. All the prosecutors, all the defense attorneys, they’re definitely in a fast paced environment,” she said.
Watching prosecutors and defense attorneys who are women was also inspiring, Garza said.
“They’re really good role models, especially for those of us who want to pursue a degree in this type of field,” she said. “They had real poise, and it takes a lot of class to be up there and speak with that much poise, especially in a male-dominant type of career.”