PHARR - Nearly 200 Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD high school students witnessed a real court hearing hosted by Hidalgo County District Court Judge Keno Vasquez as part of a new countywide educational program at PSJA Southwest Early College High School on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018.

The new program is part of Texas Code of Criminal Procedure 42.025-Sentencing Hearing at Secondary Schools that allows judges to order sentence hearings hosted at high schools to provide this educational value to students.

“This program allows us to give back to the community,” said Judge Vasquez. “It has never been done before in Hidalgo County and it’s great that the PSJA ISD administration and school board has been excited about it since day one.”

According to Judge Vasquez, witnessing the real sentence hearings at their schools serves a dual purpose for students by allowing them to see the career opportunities available in the legal field and deter behaviors that can lead to criminal consequences.

Students present at the first courts in schools hearing included those interested in becoming attorneys, mock trial participants, and those who may be interested in enrolling in the district’s new Pre-Law Institute. Launched this fall, the PSJA ISD Pre-Law Institute will provide students interested in careers in the legal field with mentorship opportunities and insight into the law profession from practicing attorneys and judges. Judge Vasquez also serves as an advisor to PSJA's Pre-Law Institute.

For Sofia Varela, a freshman interested in becoming an attorney, witnessing the sentence was eye-opening.

“I want to be an attorney so that I can help defend people and give back to my community,” said Varela who plans to enroll in the new PSJA ISD Pre-Law Institute. “I didn’t expect to see what a real courtroom looks like until I got to law school, but now I feel lucky to have experienced it.”

In addition to learning about courtroom procedures and what she can expect in a career as an attorney, Varela shared that seeing the defendants get sentenced impacted her as a student.

“Seeing the people’s lives change because of their bad decisions made me realize the importance of being careful about the choices we make,” Varela said. “I’m really going to be careful with everything that I do.”

Proud to have kicked off this new educational initiative at PSJA ISD, Judge Vasquez shared that this is the first of several real court sessions that will be hosted in the district and other high schools across Hidalgo County.