Taking over the town
High School students serve as commissioners for a day
by Art Schwartz
Reporter staff writer
May 11, 2014 | 1302 views | 0 0 comments | 35 35 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Law Day
THE BIG BRASS – The five student commissioners were (from left) Jacqueline Gonzalez, Orlando Trespalacios, Michele Alvarez, Kevin Herrera, and Natalie Oliveras.
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There was a raucous turnout for the North Bergen Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday, April 29. Numerous resolutions were discussed, including a toll gate at the high school parking lot to generate funds, and a 10 p.m. curfew for teenagers.

The audience, mostly teenagers themselves, aggressively protested the resolutions, firing a barrage of pointed questions at the commissioners. In the end, none of the resolutions were adopted.

That was because they were all mock resolutions. With a mock audience. And a mock commission.

It was all part of North Bergen’s Law Day 2014.

“It’s really a civics day,” explained Police Chief Robert Dowd. “It’s called Law Day, but it’s really about civics and government, working government.”

“Law Day is a way to show the students in the high school what the government of North Bergen is like,” said Mayor Nicholas Sacco. “It gives them the opportunity to take over different functions of elected officials and other officials. It gives them insight into the operations of the township—something that they really don’t get an opportunity to see until they’re right here.”

“This was a smart group,” noted Dowd. “They were asking a lot of tough questions. And they were giving bright answers.”

The whole town is involved

Law Day is an annual event that gives high school seniors a chance to find out firsthand what it’s like to hold different jobs within the municipality.

Social Studies teacher Justin Perrin has been the moderator of the high school student council for 12 years. “The student council is the governing body in the high school that puts this together. We coordinate with members of town hall as well as the Board of Education. We see who’s going to be available and then we organize the student senior body based on what they would like to study or are interested in.”

“We try to fit them with somebody or a department within town hall that can actually teach them within that field,” he continued. “So if it’s medicine it can be doctors and nurses. We have town lawyers, community affairs, fire department, police department, high ranking government officials.”
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“It’s called Law Day, but it’s really about civics and government, working government.” – Robert Dowd
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This year 44 students participated. “The day started off at the municipal court and both judges spoke,” said Dowd. “It was really nice. When do high school kids get to interact with both municipal court judges? They got to ask them frank questions about things that teenagers are concerned about.”

The students learned about how the municipal court operates and about the different jurisdictions of county police, state police, and sheriff departments.

Then came the mock commissioners meeting, one of the highlights of the day. Five students took the roles of commissioners, with classmates acting as town administrator and other roles. Commissioners Allen Pascual, Theresa Ferraro, and Hugo Cabrera served as advisors while the students read proposed resolutions assembled by Perrin based on suggestions from other students in the school.

When it came time for the public to respond to the resolutions, the audience came alive, with students challenging each proposal with difficult and direct inquiries.

It was all designed to help the class understand certain truths about running a government, according to Sacco. “The idea that not everything is black and white or cut and dried. There’s nuances.”

Sacco established the current format for Law Day when he became mayor in 1991. “There was always something years before but nothing quite like this. We put it in and we’ve been building on it every year. And it’s been very successful. The students really like it.”

One thing they especially enjoyed was shadowing their assigned mentors for the day and gaining insight into that person’s role and responsibilities.

“The young lady that was the superintendant of public works for the day,” said Dowd, “she went down with [DPW superintendent] John Shaw. They checked out all the sweepers and the garbage truck and the entire operation.”

“The whole town is involved,” said Sacco. “It’s all-out. We had the rent control people, the business administrator, we had everyone.”

“I had mine as the police chief,” said Dowd. “I took him to the police department. He wanted to take a picture in my chair. I let him sit at my desk. First question I asked was are you interest in law enforcement? ‘No, not at all. I want to be an athletic trainer.’ By the end of the day he’s asking me where he can go to get an application for the police exam.”

Art Schwartz may be reached at arts@hudsonreporter.com.

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