The first time that State Court Judge John Flythe meets a student, he doesn’t want it to be in his courtroom.
He doesn’t want to talk probation or prison sentences. He wants to talk about life.
“If there was more conversation and some of these students saw a judge more than one time, there might be a little bit more of an open dialogue,” Flythe said.
In an effort to reach out to students before a life goes awry, Augusta Judicial Circuit judges and school officials are planning a mentoring program to visit schools monthly and build a relationship with young people. The Judge Not Project will put judges in the classroom and help principals identify at-risk students who need intervention.
“I want to see a life of success rather than a life of death and destruction,” said the Rev. Larry Fryer, who helped reinstate the program this year based on a similar effort in 2008.
The Judge Not Project began at the now closed Tubman Middle School on a smaller scale, where Fryer said volunteers donated clothing and bicycles to needy pupils. Mentors also visited children in the hospital who were victims of gang violence and attended funerals of students killed.
This time around, Judge Not will assign one of 13 judges to each of the Title 1, or impoverished, schools.
Flythe, who is in the process of assigning judges to schools, said each judge will meet with the principal to determine the best approach for the students. Some judges might choose to meet with children in small groups while others might set up a mock trial to teach about the workings of a courtroom.
The common goal will be to get students to recognize judges and help intervene with students who might have trouble at home, live in crime-ridden neighborhoods or who are being bullied.
“There won’t be any real rigid framework,” Flythe said. “The judges will just kind of do what they please and see where the need takes them.”
The Richmond County Board of Education gave unanimous approval of the program Tuesday, but board member Barbara Pulliam said data has to be a factor in the project.
Pulliam requested Judge Not give regular updates to the board and track student progress to see whether the mentoring has a direct effect on discipline, achievement and overall success.
“We put these things in place, and sometimes we never know whether it worked or not,” she said.
Carol Rountree, the director of student services, said the program is one of several mentoring efforts in the district which she hopes can have an effect on education overall.
“(Judges) want to help the kids before they show up in court,” Rountree said. “It’s a very proactive way of approaching students.”