(from left to right) Judge Firmani, Mark Detlor, Grace Sochacki, Renee Braitwaite, Alyssa Hadsel, Attorney Green (not pictured, Taylor Ney and Zachary Vanlangendonck)
On Wednesday, May 13 th the 2015 Pasco County Teen Court Distinguished Student Awards were awarded to six outstanding local high school students at the Pasco County Courthouse by the Honorable Judge Paul Firmani and Attorney Robert A. Green, Jr. Although over a hundred Pasco County high school students participate in Teen Court, these six students were selected for their exemplary trial skills and performance during the year.
Teen Court is one of several diversion programs for first time youthful criminal offenders in Pasco County. The program’s goal is for the youthful offender to experience what a criminal trial and prosecution would be like, including a sentencing hearing by their peers. However, upon successful completion of the sentencing sanctions in Teen Court, the youthful offender has their original criminal charges dismissed. Thus, the program allows the youthful offender to keep an unblemished juvenile record. In essence, the youthful offender “works off” the criminal charge. Additionally, the program aims to teach the local high school student volunteers who participate in the program about what the legal process ‘is and is not’.
The Teen Court hearings are held at the Pasco County Judicial Complex (on the west side of Pasco County) every other Wednesday evening in actual courtrooms. Attorney Robert A. Green, Jr., a partner at Kemp, Ruge & Green Law Group has presided over the hearings for the last 15 years. However, every other position in the hearings is run by the high school student volunteers under the watchful eye of Teen Court Administrators and the students respective Law Studies Teachers. The student positions include jurors, the prosecution, the defense counsel, clerk of courtroom and even the bailiff are all hand selected from among local high schools in Pasco County.
The program has been in existence for over a decade, and it has helped countless Pasco County youthful offenders learn the consequences of their actions while also showing leniency for their future. Just as importantly, it has succeeded in teaching its student volunteers about what really goes on inside of a courtroom. Many former student volunteers have used this platform to become current law enforcement, attorneys, prosecutors, paralegals and the like.
For the first time in the programs’ history, a select few of Teen Courts most impressive volunteers will be honored and received a “Distinguished Student Award” and plaque from Kemp, Ruge & Green Law Group commemorating their accomplishments. These six students were hand selected for the exceptional commitment to learning the judicial system, compassion for their peers and prowess in the courtroom proceedings. The 2015 Distinguished Students are: Renee Braithwaite, Alyssa Hadsel, Taylor Ney, Grace Sochacki, Mark Detlor and Zachary Venlangdendock
Renee Braithwaite is a junior at Anclote High School, and she has been in Teen Court for one year. She plans on volunteering in the program again next year, and upon graduating hopes to attend the University of Tampa. When asked about her favorite experiences with Teen Court, she responded “I really enjoyed seeing all the different people, and how the court system works. Getting to hang out with all the different students from all the different schools on the jury was a great experience.”
Mark Detlor is a junior at Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School, and has been in Teen Court for one year. He plans on volunteering in the program next year, upon graduating hopes to either attend Georgetown University or Florida State University. Additionally, he plans on majoring in Political Science and then going to law school. When asked what he enjoyed most about Teen Court, he responded “I like the experience, because not many people get to practice what they want to do so early in life. Also, I like the community service, because it helps kids get back on their feet.”
Alyssa Hadsel is a junior at Fivay High School, and she has been in Teen Court for one year. She plans on volunteering in the program again next year, and upon graduating hopes to attend Florida State University. While there, she wants to pursue a double major in criminology and psychology. When asked what she enjoyed most about her Teen Court experience, she commented that “While liked learning how the court system is demonstrated, what I liked the most was giving second chances to juvenile offenders.”
Taylor Ney is a graduating Senior at Ridgewood High School. He was in Teen Court for the past three years, and he is headed to Florida State University Honors Program. While there, he plans on major in political science and attend law school thereafter. When asked about what he enjoyed most about Teen Court, he replied “I enjoyed the more complex cases that challenged me intellectually. This court room experience has shaped me into wanting to become an attorney after I complete my undergraduate degree.”
Grace Sochacki is a graduating senior at Mitchell High School. She was in Teen Court for two years, and she will be finishing her Associates’ Degree at St. Petersburg College. Upon graduation, she plans on entering the University of South Florida’s Internal Studies Pre-Law program and to one day become an international attorney. When asked what she enjoyed most about Teen Court, she replied “networking with all the local attorneys was a very special opportunity for all of us. In particular, I greatly enjoyed all the advice from Judge Firmani and Attorney Green.”
Zachary Vanlangendonck is a sophomore at River Ridge, and he is the only sophomore to receive this award. This is his second year in Teen Court, and he plans to continue volunteering in the program for the duration of his high school years. After high school, he hopes to pursue aerospace engineering at either the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Princeton University. When asked what he has enjoyed most about Teen Court so far, he responded “I love the leadership skills I have gained, and also helping out people who want to be helped out.”