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Pennsylvania’s youth courts do more than restorative justice

By | June 10, 2012

Beginning last winter, I was assisted by several volunteers: lawyers, social workers, law students and an eighth grade teacher, as we struggled against great odds to teach 25-30 eighth graders to operate a youth court. Each Thursday morning, we would enter the classroom as the students waited apprehensively for the lesson plan to begin. We wanted them to participate but often, many were not interested. The children were in an overcrowded classroom due to financial constraints. The class was too hot, the building was noisy and students ran through the halls chasing each other. We learned from the teacher that new students were entering and leaving her class on a weekly basis, and some were shuffled in and out of alternative schools and returning from charter schools which no longer would tolerate their disruptive behavior. However we persevered; though at times I was not sure these students would ever conduct an actual hearing. It was just too disruptive and many of the students seemed unable, or unwilling, to control their behavior. Hardly the kind of students needed to run a youth court.

Finally in early May, we held our first mock hearing and discovered that the students had digested a lot of the material as evidenced by the fact that they were able to get through an entire mock hearing with minimal assistance from the 4-5 adults training them. The following week we held a second mock hearing and the performance was markedly improved from the week before with little to no disruptive behavior. The third mock hearing went even better the following week with noticeable additional student participation. Right before Memorial Day, we held our fourth and final mock hearing and the students followed the procedures appropriately, asked thoughtful questions, and needed no help from the adults. It appeared they had mastered their lessons.

After the final mock hearing I had five minutes before the class was to be dismissed. I asked them when we had started months before, if they really believed they would ever run a youth court. They said no. They were emphatic.  I asked why they had felt that way. They said that they were too silly to operate a youth court. I found their honesty refreshing. Other students said they did not think they would ever be able to run a court because it seemed too hard. I then asked if they still felt that running a court was too hard and they excitedly said,” NO, it is easy!”

The week after Memorial Day, the students held their first real hearing. A sixth grade girl  hesitatingly came into the room. She was shy and spoke so low that it was almost impossible to hear her describe that she had cut a class. The judge and jury continually encouraged her to speak up so they could hear her. As the questions from the jury continued, the girl’s voice increased in volume. She grew more comfortable as the proceedings continued.

The rest of the students -the ones not in the jury- sat politely and listened without any serious disruptive behavior. The jury finally told the judge they had no further questions and the student and her youth advocate left the room and jury deliberations began. The jury discussed the facts and decided an oral apology to the teacher by the end of the following day was an appropriate disposition. The bailiff brought the student offender back into the room where the disposition was read to her.  She agreed to comply with the disposition. The judge tapped the gavel on the teacher’s desk (substituting as a judge’s bench) and adjourned the court.

Those of us who had taught these students all looked at each other somewhat stunned at what we had just witnessed. This school is considered to be the most difficult in the school district, and the school district is one of the most troubled in the nation. Yet we had taught students to run a student disciplinary court. Our students were polite, professional, thoughtful, and compassionate. They were serious and orderly; respecting each other without any disruptive behavior. The entire process was run by ten, 13 and 14 year old students. They did this with a performance that I believe would have impressed any classroom teacher in America.

I immediately asked them to list the positive things that they had just observed. The first response was respect. They said the judge ran a good and orderly court. They said that youth court helps something positive come out of something negative. They said that youth court helped students instead of punishing them. Then one of the students who had been the most disruptive student the entire year raised his hand. The young man said youth court demonstrated the importance of communication. His comment was followed by the final but perhaps most important point by any student – youth court had taught them teamwork.

How did this happen? How did these students learn these insights, and gain the confidence to articulate them? How could students in such a disruptive school environment learn this kind of self-control?  Although I want to believe it is because we did such a great job of teaching them- I know better than that. I think we have to dig deeper. And I think the answer has been teasing me for years.

Beginning in 2007, I saw hints that youth courts had a transformative impact on many students.  They seemed to learn by watching and doing far more than by the presentation of materials we had worked so hard to develop and present. John Dewey said something like this 100 years ago. We were teaching our students legal concepts and procedures but something else was going on that seemed to defy traditional learning as I understood it. Over the years other adults who became familiar with the youth courts also commented on this “phenomenon”. Nobody was ever able to really put their finger on what was happening-but we knew it was good!

For several years I have asserted that as good as youth court is as a more restorative and affordable disciplinary system, it would someday be valued even more for its value as an academic tool. It has so many educational benefits it is hard to list them all. Last week Eva Gold at Research For Action, an educational research and evaluation organization in Philadelphia that is conducting research on the Chester youth courts, suggested that I should review the work of an anthropologist and former teacher who were promoting a relatively new concept on group or collective learning. She referred me to an article by Mark K. Smith titled “Communities of practice“.

As I read this article, I realized that I was reading a description of what I had been observing for years: the implications for public education are profound – though it cuts against the grain of the traditional education system.

Youth court students are engaging in participatory learning. They learn as a group and they institutionalize that learning is not just an individual activity. Even if a group of students performs poorly as individuals, they can experience great success as a group. This is the true power of youth courts. Operating a complex institution like a youth court gives a keen sense of satisfaction to those who run the court.   By successfully operating a court these students (who may have experienced a lot of individual failure in the school system) learn that AS A GROUP they can learn-and achieve. Once they digest the experience of successfully running a youth court, they can use this new found confidence and transfer it to other educational pursuits and other areas of their lives.

I always wanted people to see a hearing because I knew my description of youth court could 18never do it justice. I understand now more than ever why I was right about the need for people to observe a hearing.

Over the past decade research, policy and practice have emphasized testing to measure individual academic achievement. Instead of this approach, imagine where we might be if all that time and money had been spent building youth courts to halt the school-to-prison pipeline?  Collective learning can open doors for our children that have been closed for far too long. Observing and measuring group learning should be the new frontier for public education reform.  We need to learn to trust what we see. Theory and policy can be wrong. Our eyes don’t lie. Youth courts deliver.