Court can be a scary place for a kid. That’s why UNLV law student Wynn Tashman works for Kids’ Court School, a program designed by professor Rebecca Nathanson to educate child witnesses about the legal process. “I always have been passionate about youth advocacy, and also about LGBT causes,” says Tashman, who is fusing those passions and using his experience working with Nathanson to develop his own educational intervention program—one for LGBT youth facing bullying and harassment in schools.
The ever-busy academic took time out of his demanding schedule to discuss his involvement with Kids’ Court School and how his own curriculum aims to improve situations at school for LGBT youth.
What made you want to get involved in Kids’ Court School? Kids’ Court School is actually what drew me to UNLV for law school. I really want to create, in my own career, a program that helps youth who are underrepresented, and it’s based on educational psychology and research—so Kids’ Court School is the perfect model. I would love to someday design my own curriculum for a program that’s going to complement the legal advocacy that LGBT children receive.
What brings kids to the program? They’ve been victims of abuse and neglect, or it could be a Family Court proceeding; it may be divorce [or] custody. At Kids’ Court School, to keep things fair and ensure neutrality, the educators in the program are not supposed to ask any questions or receive any information about what specific legal issues the clients are going [to court] for. So we allow them a bit of anonymity, [but] we do have an idea from referrals. They come from the Children’s Attorneys Project [at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada], usually, and a lot of [the work they do] is [with] abuse and neglect cases. So a lot of them have gone through traumatizing experiences.
What do they learn in Kids’ Court School? It’s a two-part program. The first part is a curriculum that was designed by Dr. Rebecca Nathanson, a model court room with characters that represent the different people in the court—a judge, the district attorney and so on—and we provide a mock story about a boy who’s had his bike stolen, and there are some ambiguous details in what really happened to the bike. We teach the children everybody’s role in the courtroom, what happens during the investigation process, what happens during the court process, what a witness is supposed to do.
And then our second session has law students who volunteer for community service credit with the law school, and they play the roles [including] the defense attorney, the district attorney, the bailiff, and the kids get to play the judge and the witness of the story about the boy who had his bike stolen. So they get questions about the bike and what happened that day, and then we go through the proceedings of an ordinary trial.
Why is such a program important to provide? I worked for Legal Aid Center, as well as the Children’s Attorneys Project. I interned there, so I got to see both sides of it. And I think that they do an amazing job advocating for the kids, but not all of them have a child-development background, so they don’t necessarily know the stress-coping techniques that have been studied empirically and that effectively reduce anxiety for kids. So they do their best to prepare their clients [and] we do our best to educate their clients, to give them skills and information that is going to make the experience of going to court less traumatic and scary.
Describe a rewarding moment working for the program. You can see the impact that the program has on the kids when they get into that [mock] courtroom for the second session and they sit up there as the witness, for example. There are certain things that we include in our curriculum, like if an attorney asks you a difficult question, instead of making up an answer, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know,” or “Can you rephrase that? I didn’t understand it,” for clarity purposes. When you see the kids ask those clarifying questions during the mock trial, that’s the bingo moment. … They’re going to be able to interact with the attorneys in a comfortable way because of that.
As a Ph.D. candidate, you’re designing a similar educational intervention program for LGBT youth being treated badly at school. I recognized that it’s a real epidemic—bullying, harassment, discrimination of LGBT youth in schools—and I wanted to do something about that. So there’s some preliminary research that suggests if you have supportive programs, like a Gay-Straight Alliance, for example, in a high school, that [LGBT students] are going to be more likely to report when they get bullied. … I wanted to create a curriculum that is going to be implemented in after-school settings, so like the GSA, for example, and it’ll teach the LGBT youth about what the reporting procedure is, how you go through that step-by-step. We’ll go through a simulation, where they get to do a mock reporting, or a mock trial like at Kids’ Court School, and it’ll also give them access to curriculum about LGBT history or LGBT resources available locally. That way it’s connecting them to things they might not be given access to in their school setting.
Is it your goal to have the educational intervention program you’re designing implemented in local schools? I have this overarching plan of what I want to do in the Las Vegas community over the next few years. It’s a lot of training programs and educational implementations for judges, for attorneys, for probation officers, for foster care, for teachers, for students. My goal is to first get this implemented all over CCSD and then kind of turn Vegas into a model, if it works, and look at the impacts that these interventions have contributed to. And then hopefully take that to other school districts, to other legal nonprofits in other states and other entities that interact with LGBT youth and replicate it.
Is something personal driving this project? I was very fortunate in my high school experience as a gay man. I had a really safe ride. I understand that not everybody has that experience. … I definitely felt misunderstood by a lot of my peers and more isolated, I guess, so I can understand that not having a sense of community, not knowing that these are things you can discuss with adult authority figures—teachers, school administrators, school counselors, and maybe not even their parents at home. It’s great, I think, to put someone in the school setting who is really actively showing that their presence is affirmed, it’s welcome, and it’s a topic that shouldn’t be taboo or treated negatively.
How can we go about creating an atmosphere in schools that will better the bullying situation for LGBT youth? I think it’s a multi-step process that will take time, but there are some clear things that I think would help, starting with awareness training. … So that [school administrators and employees] can know what kind of issues are disproportionately affecting the LGBT youth student populations. … That’s really important, because some teachers may feel a really strong desire to be helpful and supportive and promote a positive message, but they might not know the best way to do it.