Students mete out justice at DHS
ohn Cox left the girl at the front of the room with one last reminder before putting her in charge.
"Remember, judge, you're in control of the courtroom," he said.
The judge was De Soto High School freshman Kayla Henry. Her courtroom was Mike Murphy's social studies and political science classroom.
The pending trial was a practice run for a real one, in which teens will try, defend and sentence peers who have been charged with minor criminal offenses.
Run by students on a volunteer basis, youth court gives young participants experience with law and order and frees up municipal courts for more serious offenders. De Soto High School students have participated in the program, coordinated through Johnson County Court Services, for the past three years.
Cox, the county youth court services director, said if the district attorney thinks it's appropriate, cases of first-time troublemakers are often referred to the youth court in that student's school. There, a body of extensively trained peers will run the court and hand down a sentence that will be legally upheld.
"This is a less formal court that is held up to the standard of the court," Cox said. "The process works well."
Besides student judges, bailiffs, lawyers and jurors, a youth courtroom typically includes the respondent, or defendant, a teacher sponsor, Cox, and administrators or parents of the respondent.
"Generally the kids do the right thing," Cox said of jurors. "And in the process there's always an adult there to guide the students if there's a question."
Offenses addressed in youth court typically include things like theft, fighting, vandalism or minor offenses "kids would typically go out and do," Cox said.
Cox said youth court sentencing aimed to improve instead of just punish a student who did something wrong.
"Anything that the kids can think up constructive-wise can be applied," he said. "Instead of using the punitive system, we're using the constructive system to teach the kids that this is wrong, this is not acceptable, and you shouldn't be doing it. We're trying to correct the behavior so that it doesn't happen again."
Some common sentencing ideas include curfew restrictions, apology letters, community service, essays about a committed offense and why it was wrong, attending special classes, or even returning to serve on a youth court jury for another peer.
Just like their older counterparts in regular court, youth court jurors are sworn to confidentiality and questioned to be sure bias won't affect their decisions, Cox said.
At the instruction of the bailiff, sophomore John Roellchen, jurors rose to take a pledge at De Soto's recent mock trial. "Judge" Henry instructed them with their task.
"Members of the jury," she said. "It is your duty to determine a fair and appropriate outcome to the trial."
The respondent, "Bill," played by Murphy in the mock trial, was charged with battery -- any touching that is rude or insolent -- after igniting another student's hair while playing with a lighter in class. All names in the trial were made up.
Prosecuting lawyers, senior Melissa Roberts and trainee freshman Brianna Armstrong, reasoned in favor of tougher sentencing for Bill.
"The conflagration of Kayla's hair could have been easily avoided if Bill had acted responsibly," Roberts said in her remarks.
Trainee freshman Breanna Sigman spoke on behalf of the defense.
"Bill feels very sorry, and it was strictly an accident," she said, pushing for a lighter sentence.
After both sides and Bill had their say, jurors retired to the corner of the classroom for sentencing deliberations.
The group ultimately chose a compromise between suggestions from both sides. Bill would perform 14 hours of community service, attend two street law classes, serve on the jury at three youth court sessions, and write a letter of apology to the victim whose hair he sent up in flames.
Like Henry, Sigman and Armstrong are working toward being certified to act as lawyers in real youth court cases by next semester.
All students volunteer their time, as practices and actual sessions are during seminar time during the school day.
Sigman and Armstrong both hope their youth court participation will help clue them in for eventual careers.
"I want to be a lawyer," Sigman said. "I've wanted to do it for, like, ever."
Armstrong said she had the same idea.
"I think it's kind of a push toward our goal," she said of their youth court participation.
Students running the court must be able to follow detailed court proceedings, including questioning respondents and witnesses and understanding a slew of court terminology, Cox said.
They must also overcome nerves and get comfortable about confronting or working with their peers in the courtroom.
"There's much more than I expected," Armstrong said.
For students like Sigman and Armstrong, who want law-related experience and also a community service opportunity, the work is a time-consuming but worthwhile task.