The sanctions came down, taking no more than 15 minutes each to decide: Write a letter of apology. Clean graffiti off the bathroom walls. Assist the basketball coach and team. Paint the bleachers.
No, this isn’t municipal court, nor is it some new television show a la “Judge Judy.” It’s school-based Youth Court, and it’s proving to be a success in North Carolina’s Robeson and Columbus counties.
Funded under the National Institute of Justice’s Comprehensive School Safety Initiative, the Youth Court in Schools Project involves four high schools and eight middle schools each in the two low-income, racially/ethnically diverse rural counties where incidence of youth violence high. For the length of the three-year study, schools were randomly assigned to either a control or an experimental group, and results indicate that the Youth Court Project reduced violent behavior, bullying, rejection by friends and anxiety.
Dr. Paul Smokowski, lead researcher from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explains that both counties had previously used the concept of community-based teen court, and a group of school administrators and school resource officers (SROs) approached the university about applying for CSSI funds to initiate the concept in schools. Referrals to Youth Court come from principals, assistant principals and SROs, and to participate, students must admit both their guilt and their willingness to accept their peers’ sanctions. Parents/guardians must also give consent. Some offenses, usually first-time ones, that merit referrals include disrespecting a teacher, skipping class and other behavior that might previously have earned the student a trip to in-school suspension.
“The dispositions don’t involve punishment. They involve what the student needs to do to restore and repair the situation,” Smokowski says. “One of the powerful aspects of Youth Court is you have other teens serving as jury members who ask the defendants why they did what they did and what they think they could have done differently. They hear that sort of thing from adults all the time, but they don’t often hear it from their peers, and it really makes an impact. They take peers’ opinions very seriously.”
The students participating as legal counsel, defense advocate, jury members and so on take the task equally seriously, Smokowski says, and they benefit from the process as well by sharpening their public speaking and critical thinking skills. (A school staff member serves as judge and program coordinator.) Most schools designate a specific class to take on the task of running the Youth Court, and juries often are a mixture of students from that class and previous Youth Court defendants. Some of the latter participate as their disposition, while others simply want to assist with the project because they’ve seen the benefits themselves. But both Smokowski and Dr. Martica Bacallao, director of implementation for the project and assistant professor at University of North Carolina, Pembroke, say that getting principals on board with accepting those peer-directed sanctions is the biggest challenge in a school’s successful implementation of Youth Court.
“Some principals wrestle with what they see as surrendering control of the discipline process,” Smokowski says. “Ultimately the administration and SROs decide what kids are eligible for Youth Court, but if there are no referrals, the court won’t work.”
Bacallao says that principals often open their minds after watching a Youth Court hearing, and she thinks it is necessary to get principals to buy into the Youth Court Project as they are an important referral source for it.
“The whole purpose is to engage students in a way that repairs the damage or hurt that they have caused in the school community while also being held accountable for it. In traditional punishment approaches, the students don’t get an opportunity to make amends or reflect on the consequences of their actions. That approach is sometimes an adjustment for principals,” she says.
But once that buy-in takes place, Smokowski says Youth Court is very easy to implement: “All it takes is training for a teacher coordinator and placing it within a class that’s stable, like social studies, or making it an extracurricular activity and developing a referral process. We did give a small amount of the grant funds to the schools to give the coordinators a stipend, but overall, it’s one of the least expensive interventions I’ve ever seen — and its results are dramatic.”
One of those teacher coordinators, Bobby Godwin of Tabor City Middle School in Columbus County, agrees with that assessment of results: “My kids really grabbed hold of it. We used the seventh and eighth grade studio and media classes as the host classes. The eighth graders served in the key positions, and the seventh graders served as jurors and shadowed the positions they were interested in filling the next year. The second year, those students were ready to take on those positions right from the start of the school year, and we plan to continue that process past the end of the grant.”
Godwin explains that Tabor City used Youth Court for first-offense cases that normally would have been sent for in-school suspension, such as talking back to a teacher, horseplay or otherwise disturbing class.
“We saw a huge decrease in repeat offenders and we were able to keep the kids in the classroom and engaged in learning. Youth Court only pulled them out for about 15 minutes instead of the two to three days they would miss with in-school suspension. And receiving consequences from their peers instead of administrators really hit home to them,” he says. “It allows them to realize ‘if my peers think this is wrong, I definitely need to change my actions.’”
An example of an action that needed changing could involve being disrespectful to a teacher and disturbing a class. The student might be tasked with writing a letter of apology, which must be well thought out. And Godwin reviews and revises initial drafts to ensure that plenty of thought takes place.
“We had a kid writing profanity and drawing pictures on the bathroom walls. He was tasked with cleaning up all of his graffiti and other areas of the school as well,” Godwin says. “It’s been really good to see that they take it seriously. In fact, as we moved into the end of the school year, with testing and other wind-down activities, we had to stop court cases, and the students were upset about that. They’re already looking forward to continuing it next year.”
At Robeson County’s Red Springs High School, however, although coordinator Eduardo Torres says the program was a great experience for those involved, he would have preferred for the administrators to send more respondents their way. Students there put in a lot of time training with some experts from the local judicial system, but spent more time conducting mock trials than actual ones.
“The program itself is really great. The students who made up the court took it very seriously and thought it was an important thing for them to do for the school and for the other students. The respondents came in feeling nervous, but once we started working with them, they realized this was better than being taken out of school,” Torres says. “And for myself, it was a great experience too. We did 14 cases, and 11 of them stayed on a good track.”
Keeping students on track and letting them know that “they are worthy, they are valued members of their school community and they can fix the damage” is what Youth Court does very well, Bacallao says, adding, “The whole idea is moving away from a punishment mentality to restorative justice actions within the school and holding students accountable for repairing the hurt or damage they’ve caused.”