Inside RUSD’s new high school criminal justice classes

RACINE — Daniel Winter expected a boring trip to the courthouse, but it was much more interesting than he anticipated.

Winter, a Case High School senior, and about two dozen classmates traveled to the Racine County Courthouse in November to receive an inside look at the criminal justice system. Students played the role of jury and received information about a previously-decided court case from a judge and assistant district attorneys.

“It was super cool,” Winter said.

The courthouse visit was part of a new criminal justice course taught for the first time this school year at Case, Horlick and Park high schools. The class is part of a new criminal justice “pocket pathway” at all three schools as part of their academy models.

The offering gives students the chance to learn from professionals and gain a better sense of if they are interested in a criminal justice career. It is a dual credit course through Gateway Technical College.

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Oertel and Justman

Eric Oertel, left, and Justine Justman teach a criminal justice class Wednesday at Case High School. The class is part of a new criminal justice pocket pathway at Case, Horlick and Park high schools. Justman is a Mount Pleasant Police Department detective and former Case school resource officer. Oertel is a MPPD officer and current Case school resource officer.










Eric Oertel

Eric Oertel teaches a criminal justice class Wednesday at Case High School. The class is part of a new criminal justice pocket pathway at Case, Horlick and Park high schools. Oertel is a Mount Pleasant Police Department officer and Case school resource officer.




At Case, Justine Justman and Eric Oertel co-teach the class. Justman is a Mount Pleasant Police Department detective and former Case school resource officer. Oertel is a MPPD officer and current Case school resource officer.

This fall’s class is introduction to criminal justice, and next semester’s course is on criminal law. The new course has been a learning experience for students and instructors, since neither Justman nor Oertel had taught high-schoolers before.

“We’re starting from nothing and trying to build,” Justman said. “We’re going through some growing pains, but I think we’re doing better than we anticipated.”

One growing pain involved Oertel being accidentally hit in the face during an exercise.

“A demonstration went south,” Winter said in describing the incident. “Or you could say a demonstration went across (Oertel’s) face.”

Overall, though, instructors and student said the course has gone well.

“We do a lot of fun stuff, and you learn a lot,” Winter said.

The future of the pocket pathway is uncertain, but Oertel hopes it will expand.

“I would love to see it grow, just because I do think it is a very interesting way for us to be able to connect with the students,” Oertel said. “Any chance that we get, as a department or just as a profession, to get before young people when they’re at a very moldable time of their life, the better.”

The criminal justice pocket pathway was started in part to attract more law enforcement officers from the area, since shrinking numbers are a major challenge for local police departments. The Racine Police Department had 214 job applicants in 2006, 241 job applicants in 2014 and 40 applicants for eight open jobs in 2022, according to RPD data.

However, most Case students taking the course do not want to be in law enforcement. They do not even necessarily want a criminal justice career, and Oertel is fine with that.

“We’re not trying to force policing down their throat,” Oertel said. “What I would love to see is that the students are able to enjoy themselves while they’re going through the class, but … that also they might be able to decide, ‘OK, I think it was very interesting, but I don’t see myself going into that profession.’”

That appears to be Winter’s sentiment. He considered becoming a police officer and has several family members in law enforcement, but Winter plans to study communications and is interested in event planning.

That seems to be a common perspective among his classmates.

“I don’t think that there’s a single person that wants to be a cop in our class,” Winter said. “People are just interested in the pathway and all the different stuff that we learn and do in there, which I think will help them grow as a person.”

Winter said the class has made him more well-rounded and provided insight into what a law enforcement job entails, such as the importance of breathing one’s way through a high-stress situation.

“I’m definitely glad I took the class,” Winter said.

Class entails a mix of lectures, trips and hearing from the instructors about their experiences. Justman has worked in criminal justice for 20 years, and Oertel has been an officer for eight years.

They “are the best teachers to teach it, just because they live it currently,” Winter said. “They know everything, what it actually takes to do the stuff they do … We’re learning from the source.”

Justman and Oertel discuss career challenges to give students a realistic picture of their jobs, such as the “draining” cases Justman works on as a detective.

“If the kids have questions about it, we’re not going to try to sugarcoat it at all,” Justman said.

They mention job stresses and how to handle them, such as exercise and talking through their concerns.

“We always tell the kids that,” Justman said. “They’re always like, ‘Here we go again.’ ‘No, it’s important. Make sure you talk to people about stuff.’”

Justman and Oertel said working directly with students like Winter who they have seen evolve during high school is the best aspect of their work.

“That is by far the most rewarding part of the job, is being able to see those kids progress,” Oertel said.

The criminal justice class has provided clarity for Winter, and the instructors hope it does the same for more students going forward.

https://journaltimes.com/news/local/education/learning-from-law-enforcement-pros-inside-rusds-new-high-school-criminal-justice-classes/article_5f3d1b72-7bd4-11ed-bd03-9b7ea862694e.html