For Teenagers, a Jury, Judge and Prosecutor of Their Peers

New York Times
May 30, 2001

The wheels of justice are turning in a small courtroom in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

The chambers, however, are unorthodox. The walls are lined with blackboards, not hardwood paneling, and the other day, the bench was occupied by a 19-year-old, Jessel Noel, who was using her fist instead of a gavel to assert her authority.

This was not a special school episode of ”Law and Order”; this court actually dispenses justice of a sort. It is the School Justice Center at Paul Robeson High School for Business and Technology, a program that began in April and gives students the chance to determine discipline for their schoolmates. It is one of the state’s few efforts to give students a voice in penalizing their peers.

This day’s case involved a boy accused of picking up another student and dropping him to the ground. The student advocate, Shaniece Cobb, 17, claimed that the other boy provoked her client with incessant teasing.

”Have you ever been suspended before?” she asked her client.

”No.”

”Do you think if you didn’t defend yourself, he would have continued to mess with you?”

”Yes,” said her client, whose discomfort on the stand was betrayed by his hushed tones and glances toward the ground.

The 20 students who take part in Robeson’s justice center take turns as judge, jurors, school advocate and student advocate. They receive elective credit for taking part. Cases usually involve relatively minor infractions like swearing, shoving students or being disrespectful toward teachers, and students generally do not determine innocence or guilt. Instead, they carefully decide what the sanctions should be, within guidelines.

While rare in schools like Robeson, youth courts are not new. There are now more than 600 teenage courts operating in the United States, according to a study by the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization in Washington. Most are run by police and municipal departments and involve neighborhood violations. Sanctions in these courts, like those in Robeson’s, are generally a combination of constructive punishment, like community service, and aid for the defendants, like counseling.

Jeffrey Butts, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, estimates that 100 of the country’s teenage courts are in schools.

Robeson’s program grew out of a required course on conflict negotiation. The justice center is directed by the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, which tries to resolve neighborhood disputes, and the Center for Court Innovation, which plans new approaches within the legal system. The project was bolstered by a $100,000 contribution from the state attorney general’s office.

The students have been trained since October, practicing cooperation, learning the basics of the courtroom and becoming well versed in making decisions. Participation is not restricted to top students, but includes a range representative of the student body, including students who have been suspended in the past.

In the case of the student’s aggressive response to a taunting, the school advocate, Lakeisha Lubin, 16, denounced the defendant’s reaction. ”I understand he thought he was protecting himself,” she said to the eight jurors. ”But two wrongs don’t make a right. He should have found a better way to solve the problem.”

Ms. Cobb, the student advocate, made her closing statement. ”He was defending himself,” she said. ”He told me that he was sorry for what he did.”

Consensus did not come easily to the jury. Shaquana Thompson, 15, thought that only the strongest sanction would send a deterrent message. Others argued for a less severe penalty, but Ms. Thompson held out for more than 40 minutes. ”He never apologized for what he did,” she argued. ”There are better ways to deal with problems than violence.”

Finally, at 4:40 p.m (the case started at 3:15), Nathalie Parris, 18, said that making the boy write an apology to the teacher would effectively teach him a lesson. And so Ms. Thompson came around.

The group decided on two sanctions: the written apology, including a message renouncing violence, and a meeting between the defendant and a counselor.

Students, school officials and community members say that the justice center is achieving its aims. The goal, said Adam Culbreath, a lawyer with the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center who is the coordinator of the program, is not to teach teenagers how to be lawyers, but to teach them how to communicate, work together, manage responsibility, make difficult decisions and resolve conflicts. ”Hopefully, it will be a springboard to achievement and maturity,” Mr. Culbreath said.

New York Times