Some Long Island teenagers gave up a week at the beach to take in civics lessons — inside a federal courtroom, no less.
Despite the imposing atmosphere, the young participants gave the experience rave reviews.
The new program, led by U.S. District Judge Joseph Bianco, gave the teens an up-close, hands-on look at how the justice system works.
More than 80 students entering 10th grade, representing 23 high schools in Nassau and Suffolk, took part in the five-day Justice Institute program at the courthouse in Central Islip.
Students learned legal advocacy skills from experienced lawyers, observed actual federal court proceedings, including a guilty plea and sentencing, and competed against each other in a grueling mock trial competition.
For Zainab Bukhari, who attends Hicksville High School, the program was a possible career starter.
“Now I want to be a judge,” she said.
Her father, Syed Shah, 48, of Hicksville, hailed the program as a great way for youths to learn about courts and the law. “Now they know more about the legal system than I do,” he said with a laugh.
The program culminated Friday with the final round of the mock trial competition. Students from Paul J. Gelinas Junior High School in East Setauket won the championship.
“This is a great program where we got to learn from the best of the best,” said Gabrielle Barry, 15, who attends the school.
Teammate Samuel Kim, 15, said the competition was tough, with the teams given less than 24 hours to prepare their case. Once the legal arguments started, he was surprised by how intense, and yet calm, it was.
“To see an actual court proceeding, it’s not like how you see it in the movies,” he said.
Bianco, who spearheaded the program, said the goal of the program is to help local teens become more comfortable with the legal system, and teach them advocacy skills.
Bianco said he was amazed at the enthusiasm and intelligence the students displayed.
“I feel like we might have seen the future lawyers of Long Island,” he said.
Program sponsors include the Eastern District of New York, Touro College and the Federal Bar Association.
The keynote speaker was Mary Beth Tinker, whose Vietnam War protest as an Iowa junior high student led to the landmark 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District upholding students’ free speech rights.
Tinker urged the teens to be active in law and justice issues.
“Without young people’s voices,” she said, “our system is cheated.”