Originally created 03/20/01

Students preside in court



AIKEN - The city of Aiken is trying a new approach to unruly youths who disrupt schools - letting their peers decide how they ought to atone for what they've done.

Training begins this month for students who will sit on a youth court to hear those cases. Students will take the roles of prosecutor and advocate. Adults will be involved, but in the background.

The pilot program is designed to use peer pressure to change unacceptable behavior before it gets out of control, starting with misdemeanor school disruptions, such as showing excessive disrespect to teachers or creating campus disturbances. If it works well, it might soon be extended to some first-offender juvenile crimes, such as shoplifting, vandalism, truancy and other misdemeanors - and not just in Aiken, but throughout the 2nd Judicial Circuit, which covers Aiken, Edgefield and Barnwell counties.

The three-student tribunal will not decide guilt or innocence, said City Solicitor Richard L. Pearce, who met Monday with students and adults who've expressed an interest in being involved.

"Students who appear before youth court have already admitted, in confidence, what they have done," he said. With their parents' permission, they ask fellow students to weigh the circumstances of what happened and decide how the offender can make it right. By going before the youth court, the disruptive student avoids a juvenile record and the more formal proceedings of family court.

"The youth court approach focuses on restorative justice based upon positive peer pressure where other students will decide how the violator will make amends," Mr. Pearce said.

"But, make no mistake about it, this is serious business and any offender who does not cooperate fully will be remanded to the family court system," the solicitor said. That system focuses on punishment, whereas the youth court will focus on solving behavior problems while making students responsible for their actions.

After training, the tribunal is expected to meet once a month in the courtroom at the Aiken Department of Public Safety. What happens this semester will be a "dress rehearsal," Mr. Pearce said, and the program should be in full swing for the fall term.

Organizers are working with 2nd Circuit Solicitor Barbara Morgan, who's shown an interest in the pilot project's success and with local representatives from the state's juvenile justice, education and mental health departments. Community volunteers who want to help correct aberrant teen-age behavior before it solidifies into a pattern have also shown interest.

"This is very successful in many cities throughout the U.S.," said LaLita Ashley, the captain of the Juvenile Services Division of Aiken's Department of Public Safety. "Youth courts use peer influence in a positive way. Instead of an adult reprimanding juvenile offenders, their peers deliver the message ... about acceptable behavior in society. They'll tell you, `My friends know what I did, and they told me they didn't like it."'

Although Aiken's youth court is not an original idea - there are about 650 others already in operation throughout the country - it does provide an opportunity for people who want to make a difference to be involved in turning youths around before they get in serious trouble, the organizers said.

In fact, Mr. Pearce said, there's been no shortage of volunteers.

Typical sanctions include community service, evaluations, tours of correctional facilities, letters of apology, verbal apologies, written essays, restitution, curfews, chores and participation in programs designed to help youths understand what behavior is acceptable and what is not.

Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.