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Students are judge and jury at St. Louis high school

March 9, 2018

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Students who skip class or get into fights at the Northwest Academy of Law and Social Justice don’t get suspended like they used to. Instead, they go to student court.

Here’s how it works: Students who get in trouble for less serious offenses such as truancy or minor fights are referred by the assistant principal to student court. It’s set up as an actual court. Students wearing sneakers and blazers over T-shirts serve as judge, attorneys, bailiff and jurors.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the trial begins with everyone swearing to tell the whole truth and to keep what happens in the courtroom confidential. Even the principal isn’t allowed in student court. The court listens to statements from the student on trial as well as people who have been affected by the student’s actions.

What’s different from an actual court is that, in the middle of the trial, members of the court leave their positions to sit in a circle with the student and ask how he or she is doing. Has the accused been going through anything difficult that might be influencing his or her behavior? What does the student think would be an appropriate restitution? The point of restitution is not to punish for the sake of punishment, such as serving a suspension, but to make amends.

“We don’t want them to feel like they’re in trouble,” said Jaida Howard, the 16-year-old judge. “We want them to feel like we’re here to help you. We don’t want you to be suspended, we don’t want you to fall in your grades.”

The court can order students to see a peer mediator. Through a partnership with the American Friends Service Committee, select Northwest seniors are trained as peer mediators. They learn how to resolve student conflicts using empathy.

“If we didn’t have peer mediation, last week I’d say about 12 kids could’ve gotten suspended. Like, if they didn’t talk to us, it would’ve escalated,” said peer mediator Bruce Higgins, 18.

The student court members and peer mediators do not blame their classmates for their actions. They’ve seen how “bad stuff” in their neighborhoods and “stuff at home” can make students angry, easily provoked over seemingly trivial things, or quick to defend themselves from a perceived offense.

The school recently marked the one-year anniversaries of two students who were killed in separate shootings just blocks from the school. A former Northwest student was killed a few weeks ago, students said. Northwest’s principal says virtually every student in the school has lost somebody to violence.

The student court members and peer mediators do the work that they do because they don’t want to see their classmates kept out of school.

“I feel like kids need to stay in school because it’s all messed up going on out there. The biggest thing right now is for kids just to be in school and get up off the streets,” Higgins said.

Northwest’s approach dates back more than a decade, when district officials turned a middle school into a choice high school that was to focus on law and law enforcement. But administrators found that a St. Louis city high school with an all-black student body needed a broader focus than just law and police, said Principal Valerie Carter-Thomas.

“We saw that it was impossible to do that without a social justice equity lens to it,” said Carter-Thomas, who has been principal of the building for 14 years. “Because of the strange relationship between police and our students, getting students really amped up about being police officers was a really difficult job. But getting kids amped up about how we can have better policing was an easier thing.”

Social justice offerings gradually permeated Northwest’s curriculum and extracurricular activities with the help of teachers, grants and community partners. Students watch documentaries such as “Whose Streets,” about the Ferguson protests, and “Pipe Dreams,” about the school-to-prison pipeline. A support group for girls of color called the L.O.V.E. Project meets after school. Classes include a constitutional law class taught by Washington University students, a juvenile delinquency class, yoga, journalism and student court.

Northwest’s student court dates to 2011, when students pulled a senior prank that terrified the school, Carter-Thomas said. Seniors ran out of classrooms, banged on lockers and left school for a period of time. Carter-Thomas suspended them all.

But the suspended students organized and appointed themselves their own student attorney. They gave Carter-Thomas one too, and then held a trial.

They convinced her to rescind her suspensions. She withdrew them because she was impressed that they mobilized themselves, made their perspectives known in an organized manner and were engaged with school. As part of their court-ordered restitution, the seniors apologized to their classmates for the disruption they caused.

“So often our kids are judged by the snap moments and nobody actually goes back to look at all of the investments and good things that they’ve done over time,” Carter-Thomas said. “We’re just looking for another way to engage kids and get them to believe in themselves, and not getting them to define themselves by that snap moment.”

Carter-Thomas said she has noticed that students disciplined by administrators seem to remain repeat offenders. But students “disciplined” by their peers often do not.

As student court and peer mediation have become more deeply embedded in Northwest, the school’s number of out-of-school suspensions shrank from 15 three years ago to seven last year.

The students say it means something when restitution comes from fellow classmates rather than adults. They say they’re frequently judged by adults. Darnisha Butler, the 15-year-old bailiff, offered an example: One of her teachers was talking to her about a bad grade and told her, “See? You don’t want to learn.”

Part of the reason, students say, is that many teachers haven’t lived through the same experiences as the students.

“We go through the same everyday life” as students, said Javon Bolden, 17, the court’s defense counsel.

The circle talk that happens during trial is valuable to the court members because they get to hear why the student might have been acting out. The court listened to one student on a recent Tuesday who was skipping class.

“I do fail class a lot because I don’t like sitting in class doing nothing when I’m done with my work. I know I’m very bright and smart. I’m just a confused person,” the student, who asked not to be identified, wrote in her defense statement.

The court also listened to “impact statements” from the student’s teachers, who said she has been failing academically, missing class time and disrupting classmates by hanging out in the hall during class. “I think perhaps she is not challenged. I am more than willing to take it up a notch for her if she comes to class,” one teacher wrote.

The student revealed during her circle talk that part of the reason she skips class is because her friends pressure her.

“Sometimes it’s bad influences,” Judge Jaida said about why students get in trouble. “Sometimes it’s just that you want to look cool, like .”

“Like you tough, like you fit in,” said Darnisha, the bailiff.

Jaida continued, “Sometimes you never know. Sometimes they could be going through stuff at home, they might not want to be around people.”

“It’s always two sides to something,” said Javon, counselor for the defense.

During freshman Aliyah Whittier’s circle talk, the court members asked how she was doing, why she has had trouble getting along with one particular boy and whether she would continue to pursue counseling after she completes counseling for her court restitution. She said yes.

“Has student court helped you?” Javon asked her. Aliyah said yes.

“In what way?”

“A lot of ways. It’s helped me talk about my problems instead of being stubborn.”

Court members say they notice changes in people after they go through court, sometimes as simple as sitting up straight rather than slouching. Some students said initiatives like student court and peer mediation make their small school of about 300 students feel like a family.

“I feel it brings us closer not just as court members, but as students in the school, period,” Jaida said. “Some of the people that we’ve had in student court, I feel like they were just way worse before, they didn’t care about anything . I feel like we changed. Like seeing them around school, I feel like they changed.”

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Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com

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