Two Columbia middle schools will test teen courts as alternative to justice system

Monday, August 25, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:46 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 26, 2014

COLUMBIA — Black children between the ages of 10 and 16 in Boone County were six times more likely than whites to be referred to the juvenile justice system in 2013.

In an effort to decrease the rate of referrals and close the racial discrepancies, Columbia Public Schools plans to begin teen courts this fall at Lange and West middle schools. Eighth-grade jurors will have a say in the consequences their peers face if they commit minor offenses at school by recommending alternatives designed to divert students from the criminal justice system.

Teen Court

Student jurors will be taking a Peer Ambassadors class that emphasizes leadership and community service.

Teen court sessions are planned for Thursdays throughout the school year. The option to be heard by the teen court will only be available to students one time per school year for each student.

Lange and West plan to use a process similar to Hardin Middle School in St. Charles for how to handle each teen court hearing:

  1. A student commits an offense and admits guilt.
  2. A panel of student jurors from within the Peer Ambassadors class is assigned to hear the case.
  3. The jurors ask the guilty student questions about his or her case, taking into account the defendant's sincerity, honesty, willingness to take responsibility and ability to take the process seriously.
  4. Based on the severity of the offense and their perception of how the guilty student reacted, the jurors assign between five and 25 hours of unsupervised community service and up to three hours of supervised community service.
  5. The guilty student is automatically required to write letters of apology to both the victim and the school community in addition to doing community service.

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Student juries of six will conduct disciplinary hearings of classmates and choose sentences that won't involve juvenile justice officials. The teen court was set up as a way to begin addressing the disproportionate rates of minority youth referrals to the juvenile justice system.

Young blacks between the ages of 10 and 16 comprise 16 percent of the Boone County youth population, but in 2013 accounted for 48 percent of cases referred to the justice system. An 83 percent reduction in referrals for black youth would be necessary to achieve balance, according to the Office of State Courts Administrator report.

Carla London, the school district's student and family advocacy supervisor, said she went to a seminar in Las Vegas in hopes of finding ways to handle student discipline without involving the courts and to show students how their actions can affect their classmates.

“Kids who may have been in the juvenile system tend to go back in the juvenile system once that’s been introduced to them,” London said, “and so we want to stop that if we can at the school level.”

London cited incidents such as food fights and hallway scuffles as examples of wrongdoing that could be better addressed by the schools than the justice system. Missouri's Safe Schools Act allows schools some discretion on how certain disciplinary matters are handled.

“If it’s something where you push a kid and they get a bruise, no broken bones, but you cause some harm, there might still be a consequence,” London said. “Let’s deal with this in-house and keep those kids out of the system.”

The teen courts at Lange and West will be modeled on a student court at Hardin Middle School in St. Charles, London said. Lange's and West's student jurors are scheduled to visit Hardin on Sept. 4 to get a first-hand view of the student court system.

Edward Gettemeier, principal of Hardin Middle School, said his school had a problem with student fights five years ago – including three “knock down, drag outs” before classes began on his first day. After the teen court was put in place, the number of referrals to juvenile court authorities fell from 78 to six, Gettemeier said.

Columbia Public Schools decided to start student courts in middle schools in part because of the results at Hardin and in part, London said, because elementary students might not be mature enough to grasp the gravity of their offenses.

Cindy Garrett, chief juvenile officer for the 13th Circuit Court, said schools have some discretion over how juvenile offenses are handled. She added, however, that similar cases are dealt with differently school by school.

For example, Garrett said, a kid involved in a food fight would probably not be taken into custody or even receive a written referral from the school. Students are usually taken into custody for fighting if they have caused serious harm to another.

Garrett said students with multiple offenses are less likely to be eligible for alternative measures, including teen court.

The option to have their case heard by the teen court will only be available to students one time per school year for each student.

Student jurors and those who go before them must agree to keep court proceedings confidential. Failure to do so will result in automatic dismissal, London said, because telling tales violates the level of trust that faculty members put in students.

“Since we’re not a legal entity, this is largely an educational process with the goals of diversion and reintegration, as we strive to keep kids from being referred to the legal system,” London wrote in an email.

Data will be collected at Lange and West for the next year or two to gauge any effect on referral rates, London said. If the program is successful, the district can decide whether to expand teen court to more schools.

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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