Boy sitting in judge's chair smiling with judge standing next to him sliming. The judge is Denise Brown

Any time Javonna Goldsberry got a call from King Elementary School about her son, it would be followed with anger and frustration. 

“It was making me mad,” she said. “I’m like, why do I always gotta get a phone call saying 'you’re not listening and you won’t stay in your seat?'”

Goldsberry's son Dion Woods, a fifth-grader at King Elementary during the 2023-24 school year, is bubbly, energetic, and lovable, according to his mom. She would also say he’s sarcastic and loves to debate.

“He’s definitely argumentative," Goldsberry said. "He loves to stand his ground and debate.”  

Woods isn’t afraid to argue his side of a situation with anyone, whether it be his mom or King's principal Rhonda Hedges. Hedges would often be the one on the other end of the phone call telling Goldsberry about whatever distraction her son was causing that day. 

“I had him in my office, we were talking about something that had occurred, and he was debating with me,” Hedges said. “And I said, ‘You know what? You’d be a great lawyer.’”

That simple five-word sentence was the key to turning around Woods’ behavior. 

He replied, “I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer.”

During their back-and-forth, Hedges admitted that the fifth-grader was making some "good points."

She then told Woods about the number of opportunities to study law at Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) through the Academies of Louisville. After that, Hedges noticed a change in Woods. 

“I think that it has finally clicked for him that he understands middle school is going to be a fresh start for him. It’s a new start-over kind of thing,” Hedges said. “He’s pretty excited that this could be his path.”

It didn’t take long for Woods’ passion for law to take off. On at least three different occasions, Hedges asked Woods if he’d want to be “legal” representation for other students facing disciplinary action. 

“It was just ironically funny. And then I started pulling in to help me with other situations,” Hedges laughed. “A lot of times students will listen to a peer way faster than they will listen to you as the adult.”

So Hedges put that philosophy to the test and got Woods to help mediate between a student and herself. 

“He asked me if he could speak with his client alone. I said, ‘Absolutely!’” Hedges laughed. “So he would meet with the child and talk to them, and then they come back in and say, ‘Okay, we’ve come to this Ms. Hedges. I’d like to explain to you what we decided.' He would kind of talk for them, and then he would say, ‘Do you agree?’ and then the student would be like, ‘Yes. Yes, what he said is what I want to do.’ So it was very mature and he took it very seriously. He knew I wasn’t joking when I brought him down. I felt like he used it as an opportunity to present himself as a leader.”

Not only was it a way to show himself as a leader and get some experience making sure his client gets fair “legal” representation, but it was a way to help his peer. Woods got so good at being the unofficial defense attorney at King Elementary, that whenever Hedges would tell him that she could’ve used him for a situation, he would reply, “Why didn’t you call me down?”

Since he had taken such an interest in law, Hedges used some connections to allow Woods to see a courtroom. 

One of Hedges' former teachers' mother is Judge Denise Brown - Jefferson County Division 7 Family Court. 

Woods was in disbelief when he learned he was going to a courtroom, Hedges said.

On the first day of summer break, Hedges took Woods to go see the courtroom. When they walked in the building and went up the elevator, something stood out. He saw a number of upset people. That observation was among the first things he asked Judge Brown about. 

In family court, there are no juries. In Judge Brown's courtroom, stuffed animals sit in the chairs normally reserved for jurors. Judge Brown explained that to Woods, who asked, “So you try to make it warm and welcoming?”

“That’s right," Brown replied.

Hedges noticed just how much Woods absorbed watching Judge Brown go about her day. But the biggest lesson Woods learned happened while judge Brown helped someone troubleshoot a mistake. 

“A gentleman was trying to get [into a Zoom meeting]. He thought his court date was that day, but there was no court. She took the time to let him in and explain that it wasn’t his court date,” Hedges said. “She was glad he was trying out the equipment early so he could Zoom in the next day. The kindness she expressed that [Woods] got to witness was so powerful.” 

After seeing the judge’s chambers and sitting in the judge’s chair, Woods took the car ride back, to tell Hedges what experience meant to him. 

“He really wanted to be able to help people like this, and he repeatedly said that to me that day,” Hedges said.

“I want to help people," Woods added. "I want to do this and help people."

During that same car ride, Goldsberry got another phone call from Principal Hedges, but this phone call was one she was looking forward to—a call Hedges would describe as positive and exciting.

But that wasn’t the first positive phone call Goldsberry had received from Hedges. Since Woods started mediating between students and administrators, she noticed many changes. 

“I already knew he was changing because he wasn’t getting no phone calls no more. When she called and said that, and how he done helped in certain situations with other kids that she personally pulled him out, it put a smile on my face, warmed my heart, I was just so proud of him,” Goldsberry said. “I’m like, dang Dion, you really are growing up!”

Unfortunately Woods’ legal counsel won't be available to King Elementary students during the 2024-25 school year - he’ll be attending Dr. J. Blaine Hudson Middle School. 

While Woods’ academic and law career is bright, Goldsberry is glad that, toward the end of the school year, phone calls from King Elementary were met with pride and excitement. 

“The good phone calls definitely warmed my heart toward the end of the year,” Goldsberry said. “And they let me know me and Ms. Hedges and the rest of the staff was doing something right speaking the positive into him.”

By Dyuce Woodson