‘We don’t believe in punishment’: Student-led youth court could come to Harrisburg school

The idea is that by following through with the plan laid out by the jury, the student would ideally come to understand the gravity of his actions.

John Harris High School. April 24, 2019. (Sean Simmers/PennLive)

John Harris High School. April 24, 2019. (Sean Simmers/PennLive)

This article originally appeared on PA Post

Audrey Dudley presented a scenario: A high school student angry with his teacher lashes out swearing and yelling before standing from his desk, walking to a classroom door and slamming it on his way out into the hallway — slamming it so hard that a glass window in the door shatters.

In a traditional school setting, it’s a scene that would end with discipline, possibly detention or out-of-school suspension. But in Norristown, where Dudley teaches social studies, there is another option. It’s an option that soon could be available at a Harrisburg high school, too.

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For six years, Dudley has led Norristown Area High School’s youth court program, which allows students who break certain rules to admit guilt and appear before a jury of their peers. That jury then assigns corrective action plans that take the place of traditional punishments.

In the case of the door-slamming student, that could mean writing letters of apology, seeking out anger management counseling and helping school maintenance staff repair the broken glass, Dudley said. If completed, traditional punishments would be ignored and the offense wouldn’t be added to the student’s permanent record, she said.

A school administrator is in charge to ensure that the plan is followed. If it’s not, traditional punishments could come back into play, she said.

The idea is that by following through with the plan laid out by the jury, the student would ideally come to understand the gravity of his actions and realize how many people were hurt or inconvenienced by them, thinking twice before acting the same way again, Dudley said.

It’s a concept known as “restorative justice,” according to Gregg Volz, a public interest lawyer and champion of youth courts who pioneered their introduction into Pennsylvania schools.

“We don’t believe in punishment, particularly for kids,” Volz said, admitting that it’s a complicated concept within the modern education community. “The resistance is pretty strong.”

But it’s gaining traction, including in Harrisburg School District, where Receiver Janet Samuels recently confirmed a youth court program is being considered at the high school level. In fact, it could be implemented at the John Harris Campus as early as next semester, Samuels said in a written statement.

“Youth Court is a positive vehicle for reducing the number of youth entering the juvenile justice system while focusing on restorative practices and restorative justice,” Samuels said. “We are excited about the upcoming implementation of Youth Court and look forward to working with partners on this initiative.”

Late last week, Harrisburg district officials were not willing to discuss the possible program in any greater detail, according to spokeswoman Kirsten Keys.

But it’s possible that some insight could be gleaned by looking to the Norristown high school. Samuels served as Norristown Area School District’s superintendent when its youth court program was implemented six years ago.

“She was actually a big proponent of it,” Dudley said.

In Norristown, the youth court process takes place in one of Dudley’s social studies class. In that class, enrolled students are taught about the judicial process, even receiving visits from Montgomery County prosecutors and public defenders, she said.

The instruction also serves as training, allowing those enrolled in the class to organize their own mock courtroom with students serving as judge, bailiff, and jury. It’s through that process that the youth court is created, Dudley said.

Misbehaving students referred by the high school’s discipline office then appear before their peers on the jury, admitting guilt while laying out the details of their misbehavior. It is from those details that the jury creates corrective action plans.

There are no rules for how in-school youth courts must be set up, and their structures can differ from school to school. For example, the United Way of York County’s Youth Court Alliance operates after-school programs in several local districts. They are staffed by student-volunteers, who hear cases dealing solely with student truancy, according to Program Manager Emily Masimore.

The York County youth courts are meant to spare habitually truant students from fines and citations that can be filed with local district judges.

Students must agree to participate, and an admission of guilt is required as part of that agreement, Masimore said. About 38 percent of qualifying students agree to participate, she said, explaining some students fear being judged by their peers while others have parents who would rather take their chances with the district judges.

Dudley said that Norristown’s youth court is not available to everyone. Only students who commit minor, nonviolent offenses qualify, and repeat offenders are not always invited back, she said.

Mostly, the program is intended to benefit students who are “young and on the edge,” Dudley said, referring to students who are flirting with a pattern of misbehavior.

The idea is that those students will make amends through the youth court process while realizing the harm they’ve done in their school community and, ultimately, deciding to rejoin that same community as productive members, she said.

More importantly, she said, it spares those students from punishments such as suspension, which forces them out of the classroom and onto neighborhood streets, where they can get involved with more serious wrongdoing.

“It’s just unnecessary,” Dudley said, of those traditional “zero tolerance” approaches to punishment that became popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Those traditional punishments are added to students’ permanent records and can be a hindrance later in life when applying for college scholarships, she said. The records also can be used against students if they are arrested for a crime, showing a pattern of misbehavior and leading to more severe punishments and sentencing in the real judicial system, Dudley said.

That’s a process called the “school-to-prison pipeline” — a process by which students are labeled bad actors and funneled directly out of schools into the criminal justice system with little chance for redemption, she said.

It’s often a process that is kicked off by “silly, stupid stuff,” Dudley said, referring to the immature, impulsive actions of high-schoolers across the country.

Volz has been working to thwart the school-to-prison pipeline for more than a decade, when he first helped to introduce youth courts to schools in Chester and Philadelphia counties. He’s been consulted to help set up many more across the state.

“We’ve been way too punitive,” Volz said.

Most recently, Volz participated as one of 19 experts on a Joint State Government Commission advisory committee organized at the request of members of the Pennsylvania Senate, who acknowledged “the potential benefit of promoting school-based youth courts.”

What came out of that study is a 150-page report, containing recommendations to increase the number of available youth courts while also presenting an analysis of related costs and benefits. It also pointed out that statistics about youth courts’ success are limited.

“While empirical evidence is scarce, anecdotal support seems to suggest that youth courts are a promising pathway, which in addition to diverting youth from further contact with the juvenile court, could lead to more intangible benefits such as improved student-teacher relationships, civic engagement and the development of public speaking, problem-solving and leadership skills,” a summary of that report reads.

Volz was joined on that committee by Stephanie Jirard, a professor of criminal justice at Shippensburg University, who has been consulted to help create and implement a youth court program in Harrisburg.

Last week, Jirard was willing to share some details about her conversations with district administrators — conversations that she said began under former Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney’s leadership and continue under Samuels’ rule.

Sybil Knight-Burney during a Harrisburg School District board meeting. (Vicki Vellios Briner/Special to PennLive)

Conversations with Knight-Burney were in their infancy when Samuels took over as the district’s leader in June, and it is still unclear exactly how a Harrisburg-based youth court would be structured, Jirard said.

But she said Samuels made one thing clear: a Harrisburg youth court would only deal with minor, nonviolent offenses. That’s true despite Jirard’s belief that student juries could have the wherewithal to settle even more severe misbehavior.

Like Norristown’s program, Jirard said she is pushing for an in-class youth court in Harrisburg as opposed to the after-school model used in York County. An in-school model, she said, will give Harrisburg students — many of whom have after-school jobs and childcare obligations — the best opportunity to take advantage of the program.

That in-school approach also would serve an educational purpose, offering a hands-on lesson in criminal justice to students enrolled in the social studies classes in which the youth court proceedings take place, Jirard said.

Jirard said she and Harrisburg administrators also have sought the support of Dauphin County officials, specifically district judges and District Attorney Fran Chardo.

“We are all in this together,” she said.

This week, Chardo said he’d not yet developed a strong opinion about in-school youth courts.

“I want to learn more about it,” he said.

With that said, Chardo spoke highly of Jirard, calling her a “great innovator” in the field of criminal justice and noting that he looks forward to ongoing discussions about the proposed Harrisburg School District program.

But Chardo also pointed out that Dauphin County already has a diversion program built into it’s juvenile probation system. It’s a program structured similarly to the school’s youth courts.

Monthly, Chardo and a group of probation officials meet to go over juvenile cases, picking out those that qualify for the diversion program, the district attorney said. Those juveniles are then asked to participate in different restorative programs, and if they comply, they can avoid criminal charges, Chardo said, calling the program “very successful” with about 40 or 50 cases reviewed per month.

In determining whether a juvenile qualifies for the county’s diversion program, officials take into account criteria, including the severity of accusations and whether the child in question has a record of past wrongdoing, Chardo said.

He worries that district officials will not have access to those same records when selecting students who qualify for their in-school restorative justice programs.

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While the exact structure of the proposed Harrisburg youth court has not yet been determined or revealed, Jirard stressed that the goal of the program — a pursuit of restorative justice — remains the same as in others that have been set up across the state.

“I actually think it really could transform kids’ lives,” Jirard said. “And that’s what we are trying to do.”


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