From Court, Houston Judge Presides over Class

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William Yeoman

Justice of the Peace William Yeoman mixes stern admonitions with humor when handling the cases of misbehaving students. Harris County hide caption

itoggle caption Harris County

In Texas, some students who lose their way on the path to academic success must explain themselves to a justice of the peace.

The state's "zero tolerance" policy on school discipline means that children who act out in class can get "tickets" and face misdemeanor criminal charges. Every week, dozens of school children show up in Judge William Yeoman's Houston courtroom to resolve class-C misdemeanor citations.

Yeoman tries to temper the fear he inspires in the young charges by being both king and court jester. When he enters the courtroom, everyone treats him with the deepest respect. Then Yeoman starts clowning, teasing one man about his bald head. In a booming voice that requires no amplification, he asks, "How many here for traffic violations? How many here for stupid school stuff?"

Yeoman raises his tall, stocky frame and does a rough count. About 30 people raise their hands. Yeoman is a formidable presence, and he clearly knows he might be a little scary. So he mixes stern admonitions and lectures with a dose of weird jokes.

"Now, when I was in school and did stupid school stuff, we never went to court," he tells the courtroom. "We just went down to Coach Wilson. And he beat my butt into next week. And my dad was a coach also, so Coach Wilson called Coach Yeoman, and Coach Yeoman took his son's butt into the following week. So I was buttless for two weeks."

Life Lessons from the Bench

While Yeoman speaks, the local prosecutor works out deals with some of the miscreant students and their parents. Some will plead guilty and pay fines. Some will do community service and keep their records clean for now. Yeoman wants them to know that the real price they pay for their mistakes could be very high.

"The more education you have, the more money you will make," he tells the kids in his courtroom. "But you can't do it going to court all the time. Because life's a competition, and your competition is in school — while you're being ticketed to go to court."

Yeoman wears pinstripes. The assembled masses are in shirtsleeves. He wants them to know that he will treat them fairly, as long as they show respect for him, and for the law. He tells a late arrival to court to stop right where she is.

The latecomer is the mother of a child who got in a fight in school. She stops dead in her tracks. Afterward, in his chambers, Yeoman says parental tardiness is one sign of why kids are in trouble in school: Neither parents nor their children respect the system, he says.

Passing the Buck?

Outside the courtroom, those waiting for justice have different ideas about who's at fault. Eula Farris, the woman who was late, has a son with a learning disability. He's constantly getting picked on, she says. She doesn't see why her son's efforts to defend himself should land him in court.

Corey Enclarde, another student, just got out of high school, but still has a ticket to take care of.

"The school system is corrupted!" he says in all seriousness when asked why this keeps happening to him.

Yeoman has little interest in, or patience for, this type of passing the buck. He's not happy that he has to clean up someone else's mess, but if no one else is willing to do it, he will.

Meanwhile, for students in the courtroom who've forgotten how important family is, he has some words of advice.

"If you don't have a mother, get one," he tells the courtroom. "Now, legally speaking, the difference between a mom and a dad is simple: Mom will lose her life to keep you from going to jail. Dad just wants to pick you up from jail."

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