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Youth court engages teens with law

By Mari A. Schaefer, The Philadelphia Inquirer April 8, 2009

Stoneleigh Fellow Gregg Volz and his Fellowship are featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The 17-year-old Chester High School senior walked into the courtroom and listened as the charges against him were read.

This was no ordinary legal proceeding.

The venue was an out-of-the-way classroom, C211, with few windows, institutional blue walls, dirty linoleum floors, and laminate cabinets. There was a judge’s bench, complete with gavel, and a jury box.

The senior would be tried for what might be called scholastic offenses – disrupting class, arguing with a girl, and refusing to provide his teacher with a good phone number for his parents. And he would be held accountable and punished for his infractions, not by school officials, but his classmates – a jury of his peers.

Part club, part tribunal, this “youth court” puts struggling Chester High School at the forefront of a trend in juvenile justice aimed at improving school discipline, bolstering academics, and engaging teens on either side of the discipline divide with a pivotal concept, the rule of law.

More than 1,500 youth courts have now been established across the country, up from 78 in 1994, according to the National Association of Youth Courts. Most of the courts operate on budgets of less than $50,000, according to one recent study, while youth advocates say they have been proven to reduce the numbers of teens entering the juvenile justice system.

They have proven so effective that the Philadelphia School District is now contemplating adding a youth court at each school site to help address its endemic truancy problem.

Communities such as Pottstown in Montgomery County, meanwhile, have taken the concept to the criminal justice system and established youth courts at the magistrate level for teens accused of summary offenses.

At Chester High School, where about a third of the 1,700 students live below the poverty line and just 13 percent go on to four-year colleges, there have been growing pains.

Robert Jones, the Chester Police Department school resource officer who attends the court sessions, said the program is not getting “buy in” from some staff members, who still refer students for suspensions.

“These kids are not getting their just due,” he said.

Darla Hammond, the school’s interim principal, said the school has done some professional outreach to the faculty and intends to do more.

The court, she said, is a “great incentive” for students to accept responsibility and become part of the process for maintaining discipline and civility at the school.

Gregory E. Thornton, superintendent of the Chester Upland School District, goes even further, explaining that there are discussions on how to expand the youth court into a Law and Citizenship Academy within the district, and to add a second court, possibly at the middle school level.

Jamar Sanders, 17, a student juror, said he used to be a gang member in Chester with “nothing to do.”

Added Sanders proudly: “I actually talk in class now.”

Judge Ja’Von Garrett, a junior dressed in black robes, called Chester High’s youth court to order.

Standing before him was the senior, or “respondent,” in youth court parlance, dressed in the uniform white shirt and khaki pants. He rocked uncomfortably on his feet, not sure what to do with his hands. He occasionally glanced at the jury but stared mostly at the floor. His voice trailed off on some of his answers.

The jury began to pepper the senior with rapid-fire questions.

“Were you disrespectful to the teacher?”


“Why do you feel like you have to burn on [insult] people?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you think it was the right action?”

“I don’t know.”

For the last 16 months, the Delaware County school has run the court to pass judgment on minor disciplinary infractions and truancy as an alternative to traditional punishments such as suspensions. The respondents must admit guilt to participate, and sentences often involve coming back and serving as jurors themselves. The proceedings are confidential.

The senior, uncomfortable with the direct questions, finally spoke up.

“This is stupid. Why am I in trouble for burning on a person?”

The jury did not relent, probing his willingness to accept responsibility for his behavior.

“Will you stop?” asked one juror.

“Yes,” the senior responded with a scowl.

After about 10 minutes, Garrett called an end to the questions. The respondent left the room shaking his head. The jury began deliberating.

Gregory L. Volz, an attorney and self-described “product of the sixties” sat crammed into a student desk, watching the proceeding and occasionally offering bits of advice.

Volz recently received a fellowship from the Stoneleigh Center in Philadelphia to get the youth court up and running. He now devotes three afternoons a week to the youth court and co-teaches a law and civics class at the school.

Volz uses doughnuts, pizza, trips to a rock-climbing gym, and a four-week summer camp to keep the volunteer students engaged and coming back. In the first year, over 90 students participated.

“The idea is to get the first-time offender and give them immediate impact,” said David K. Trevaskis, the pro bono coordinator of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, a youth court advocate.

Pottstown has been running a juvenile justice-based youth court since 2001 when Magisterial District Judge John Durkin, a former detective with the Pottstown Police Department, received a seed grant from the Commission of Crime and Delinquency.

Youths 12 to 18 years old who have committed summary offenses including shoplifting, truancy, underage drinking, and disorderly conduct have the option of attending youth court. Otherwise they can pay the fine, appear before a magisterial district judge, or end up in juvenile court, depending on the offense.

Twice a month youthful offenders from five area high schools show up to be judged by their peers, Durkin said. They also must admit guilt to participate. Since January, the court has heard about 20 cases.

Durkin just sits in the back and listens.

“I try not to interfere because it is their court,” he said. “Whatever sentence comes out, we hold it.”

The jury’s deliberations at Chester High became so heated, at one point, Garrett pounded his gavel.

“One at a time,” he said.

The jurors were divided over whether or not the respondent would take the punishments seriously.

In many ways, the Chester High School court is as beneficial to the volunteer judge and jury as for the respondents.

Senior Shyree Clark likes the changes she has seen in herself since becoming involved with the teen court.

“I always saw myself as a leader, but I have learned to become more democratic,” said Clark, 17, now President Emeritus of the court. She admits to once being more of a “dictator” but now enjoys sharing power. “I learned how to listen to everyone’s ideas and incorporate them into one.”

Youth Court President Eian Propst, a senior, said the decisions are hard and the sentences creative. If a kid throws trash on the hallway floor, Propst said, he or she is likely to find himself or herself doing community service working alongside the janitor.

Youth Court, Propst said, is all about second chances.

When the respondent finally returned to the court and heard the sentence – a letter of apology to the teacher, 12 hours of jury duty, and a recommendation to try counseling – he was upset but showed little emotion.

At a required post-sentence conversation with faculty advisor Ray Thompson immediately afterward, the senior vented his frustration but agreed to comply with the terms to avoid suspension and ruin his “perfect” attendance record.

Once he completed the sentence, Thompson told him, the offense would be erased.

“Now I know how it really feels to go to a real court,” the student said. “I’m going to think about this before I make a bad decision in the future.”

Originally published by The Philadelphia Inquirer.