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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Canyons School District’s peer court provides alternative to suspension, juvenile system

Dec 08, 2020 03:31PM ● By Julie Slama

Members of the inaugural Canyons School District peer court were sworn in by Canyons Board of Education President Nancy Tingey to help provide student offenders a positive alternative to the juvenile court system. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Last May, Brighton sophomore Nora Dominguez received an email from her geography teacher, Shan Apolonio, asking her to consider applying for Canyons School District’s inaugural peer court. 

“It really interested me and sounded really cool,” she said. “A week later, I got a letter in the mail and I jumped in excitedness.”

Nora joined 22 other sophomores through seniors in the district’s five comprehensive high schools for trainings and mock trials before the school year began when they would hear their first cases.

The Canyons Peer Court is a model of restorative justice that is being embraced in communities across the country. Peer courts function much like any court of law—except with peer courts, students are trained to hear cases after students admit their guilt to their school administrators, and cases center around violations of school or district policy, such as fighting, bullying, vaping, or misuse of technology. The appearances and outcomes are confidential and focus on helping their peers make better decisions.

“We took an oath of confidentiality and learned what we could and couldn’t ask and how to properly talk to the students and their families. We ask them how they feel about what they did and how it impacted their families and friends and we ask the parents how it affected them and how they’re dealing with it,” Nora said. “I was nervous. I am scared of being in front of crowds and I usually don’t communicate well, but this has given me more confidence. I realized I’m more patient than I thought I was and I’m more understanding. I listen and want to really help them.”

The peer court students rotate in roles of one of three judges, who sit before the families, or they’re one of three bailiffs, who escort the families into the court and read the oath. Other peer court students sit quietly in the back of the room, learning and observing, and once families leave on a break, take part in the deliberation of the deposition to determine the students’ recourse for the next four weeks. They are guided by Apolonio and the program’s coordinator, Charisse Hilton.

“I really love the concept of restorative justice,” Apolonio said. “I like that students are being held accountable when they make mistakes and they are getting the help to make better decisions. Peer court is about helping the person who made the offense, not a punitive sentence. If they need help or intervention, we can help them get back on track to make more positive decisions and make amends. As a mom, I know every kid makes mistakes. And this is like that. We put our arm around them, help them to work it out, to grow up and be successful. Here, they learn someone cares about them after they messed up and they care about their future.”

Apolonio said that by having a peer court, it allows students an alternative to the school-to-prison pipeline: “When students enter the juvenile court system, the recidivism rates are high. But with peer court, it is much lower. We stop kids from doing dumb things over and over in their lives and help them make better decisions to live their lives.”

Midvale Middle School Assistant Principal ConnieTrue Simons said some students from her school have chosen peer court as their option from possible school suspension or other avenues.

“It’s an alternative to suspension where students are engaged and learning how to change their behavior,” she said. “Suspension doesn’t change their behavior and sometimes, students repeat their behavior. Through peer court, students are learning to make themselves better, their school better and their community better. I like the learning component. It’s absolutely a better approach. Peer court isn’t finding them innocent or guilty, since they already admitted their guilt; it’s a way to move them forward in a positive way.”

That’s because the deposition the students receive usually has a way for students to look into their future at a possible career and discover what is needed and how the behavior may not be helpful. The students also may find ways to repair any damage they made or share ways to follow school rules through posters or a video. 

Students also may be asked to apologize to other parties, and to perform community service by finding ways to improve their school community or even leading clean-up efforts on their campus. Another possibility may be that they are to enroll in a class to help correct behavior and find support through one of the district’s Family Learning Centers.

To ensure students are on track, the school administrator checks in with students regularly as well as the peer court-appointed mentor, Suzanne Ren.

After the court gives the deposition, Ren immediately meets with each family and outlines the next four weeks for the student to achieve it. Then, she meets with students weekly.

“I ask what they need and how they’re doing,” she said. “I can be that person in the school district that they feel comfortable with and will bend over backward to help them be successful, find out how we can best support them or just be there to listen. Many of these kids realize this diversion is a great opportunity to stay out of the juvenile court system so they’re receptive and respectful.”

By mid-October, the peer court had heard 14 cases of secondary students. The students, who upon successful completion can apply to sit on the peer court the following year, will be tracked throughout their schooling to determine the success of the program.

“These kids are amazing and to see the growth over the three weeks is amazing,” she said.

That is what Canyons District Director of Responsive Services BJ Weller wants to hear.

“This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time,” he said about his eight-year goal. “We can use this in lieu of suspension. Suspension doesn’t really work for the most part. Kids are out of school, unsupervised, getting further behind in their schoolwork, and so, they’re more likely to drop out and not graduate high school. So, when we can keep them in school, that’s better. It’s a community approach, now the family is involved—parents, guardians—teaching them this process, they’re still held accountable, but we feel this is more effective as we’re teaching them the skills, providing the resources to help support them where in the past, we would suspend them for three days and they come back and nothing is changed.”

Weller said that this is another avenue to reach students.

“This is one more tool, one more resource we can provide our students, their families, and our schools, to help support them and to learn pro-social skills to build empathy, compassion and stay out of the criminal justice system if at all possible. When you have caused a harm, by not following the school rules, expectations or broken a law, it doesn’t just impact you, it impacts your family, your classmates, the community,” he said. “Sometimes, you don’t understand that and sometimes going through a process like this helps them build their understanding of the harm they caused and gives them the opportunity to repair the harm they cause, that then gives them the opportunities to build empathy; it strengthens relationships and prevents you from committing the same infractions and repeating the same harms in the future.”

He also said it provides equity in the district. That’s because students in Sandy and Draper have had the option to enter their cities’ peer courts, but currently Midvale and Cottonwood Heights don’t have peer courts. 

Canyons is the second district in Utah to establish a peer court, having sought advice and information from Ogden School District’s peer court. Canyons court was approved this summer by the state youth court association and oversees cases of minor offenses during school hours or on school property, Hilton said.

“Safe school violations like weapons, threats, assaults aren’t seen in peer court; we have collaborative relationships with all the police precincts,” she said, adding that the school resource officers also went through the peer court process in August. “This isn’t about being soft on crime. Peer courts are sentencing courts and the sentences handed down are binding.”

Apolonio said that the peer court members, like Nora, were chosen for their maturity, natural leadership and ability to be compassionate, emphatic and show equity. These students devote at least two Wednesday evenings per month to hear cases and review them four weeks later. In return, they receive 0.25 high school credit for the year. 

Hilton, who is in her 28th year in education, said that peer court changes the lives of both the panelists and those who committed the offenses.

“Our goal is to help the kids change their behavior, but our court panelists also are having positive experiences. They’re bright, kind, and have a desire to help. They’re learning about civics, community engagement, exploring career opportunities, engaging with the public, speaking professionally and staying calm under pressure. These kids are responsible and have their hearts in the right spot. They sincerely want to help,” she said. “Youth courts give students a voice, experience with leadership, and a chance to serve their community. I have a passion to help students become leaders and to help make our community better. I think this program will help our community and our families.”

While peer court students applied and were recommended by teachers or counselors, Hilton said that many of them come from different walks of life.

“These kids may be on the mountain bike team, Sterling Scholars for their schools, bilingual, wanting to learn about the legal field, have parents who are immigrants, or having a desire to engage in their community. They really want to get to know the student who comes in so they can learn how they can best help them. I cannot speak highly enough about them,” she said. “I’m a firm believer that kids need a connection to someone, their school, their district, their community.”

For Nora, it is her first time she has been involved in an activity with the school district.

“It’s a way to give back to the community that has given me the opportunity to learn and grow and be supported by kind teachers,” she said. “I’m here to help someone else along.”