Trial by jury of classmates

Laura Loh
March 2, 2005

There's not much in the way of physical evidence to mark Room D112 as School No. 426's Student Court: It's a former science lab furnished with a few chairs and tables and an old sectional sofa.

But a few afternoons a week, the place takes on the formality of a courtroom as stone-faced "jurors" arrange themselves on the sofa, and a "judge" with an authoritative baritone voice calls the Student Court to order.

It is here that students who violate school rules come to find leniency - or at the very least, avoid being suspended or expelled.

Since it was established in November, the East Baltimore school's Student Court has handled about two dozen trials, including one involving two students who fought during an assembly attended by several Ravens players, an incident that deeply embarrassed the school.

Courts run by teenagers have existed in schools and communities across the country, including in the Baltimore region. Some teen courts handle nonschool offenses and serve as alternatives to the criminal justice system, giving young offenders a taste of the courtroom without its dire consequences. Others, like the one at School No. 426, located in the Lake Clifton High School complex, aim to create a sense of order and community within a student body.

"We're trying to build a professional culture here," said Principal Tricia Rock, who saw a similar court at a school in the Bronx, N.Y., and decided to ask her school's law teacher, Karen Ndour, to start one. With some of the responsibility for discipline transferred to the Student Court, Rock said, suspensions at the 300-student school have been lower this year - 35 as of last month, compared with about 80 at the same time last year.

On a recent afternoon in Student Court, a ninth-grader in a yellow, long-sleeved T-shirt sat in the defendant's seat, brought there by a complaint from his English teacher for cursing in class.

Jazmine Murchison, a petite 17-year-old serving as the teacher's lawyer, laid out the offenses: the student had been insubordinate, disregarded an instruction, skipped detention and exhibited a pattern of misconduct.

The issue of guilt or innocence was not at issue. For the students who act as judge and jury, the goal in these cases is to get a full account of the defendant's offense and decide on an appropriate penalty, such as an apology or community service. The court takes into account circumstances surrounding the offense and notes whether the student is sorry.

Robert Taylor, a student representing the defendant, told the jury that his client regretted his actions. "He's still young," Robert said. "He's got the middle-school mentality. Give him a second chance. Don't throw the book at him today."

Students in the school's Emerging Leaders law program, who operate the court, say they are not just performing an administrative function. They also are trying to change the mindset of offenders. One of the signs of their success, they say, is that few of the students they've penalized have been brought back for new violations.

"If a student is disciplined just by the administration, I guess they feel the administration [is] just against them," said Dayshawnia Pittman, a sophomore who serves as a juror. "But if they're disciplined by their peers, it shows how [their action] really does affect the community."

Defendants submit to the court's authority to avoid being suspended or expelled from school and earning a bad mark on their academic record. So far, about a quarter of the court's cases have been filed by students against other students - in those cases, the question of who is at fault is decided by the administration - and the rest have been initiated by teachers or the principal. Students are not permitted to bring cases against teachers.

Some defendants appreciate having the chance to air their side of the story, and willingly accept the court's sanctions. Others are less cooperative. Spencer Williams, 16, a barrel-chested junior who serves as the court's judge, recalled once having to stop a defendant who became disruptive during his trial and tried to bolt.

The students involved in running the court say the penalties they hand out are more effective than suspensions because they keep offenders in school. Community service, for example, has to be completed in school and can include cleaning classrooms or helping teachers.

"We try to work with the kids to help them with their behavior, instead of putting a hard punishment on them," said Murchison, an 11th-grader. "We try to give them a chance, basically."

Suspending or expelling a student from school exacts a heavy toll and should be used as a last resort, some of the students said, because youngsters barred from school can fall behind academically or feel disconnected from the school community.

"Soon, they start failing classes. They start focusing on something else," said Maryland Shaw, 15.

In addition to doling out penalties on behalf of teachers or administrators, the Student Court also serves as a pressure valve to relieve tensions between students. Eric Brunner, a freshman who filed a case against a female classmate, said he might have resorted to violence if he had not had this option.

The classmate, who is black, used to taunt the white 15-year-old with racial slurs and threaten to break his glasses, he said.

"I just wanted her to stop," said Eric, who admitted he considered physically confronting the classmate or asking another girl to fight her. But his teacher urged him to take the matter to Student Court, and he did.

"I just wanted to see what they would do, and it turned out good," he said. The court sentenced the girl to community service and ordered her to apologize to him. She has not bothered him since, he said.

The day after the trial of the freshman who cursed in his English class, the court's operators gathered to decide on a punishment. Those who had served as judge, lawyers and courtroom staff during the trial relinquished their roles and took part in the deliberations.

All agreed that the defendant should be required to apologize to his teacher and classmates, but the group was stuck on how many hours of community service to order.

Spencer wanted to give him 15 hours. "If he wouldn't have come to us, if he was at another school, he would have gotten expelled," he said.

Dayshawnia protested: "That's cruel and unusual punishment, you guys."

The disagreement was settled by a vote. Eight students were in favor of giving him 15 hours, six voted for 10, and one voted for 20. Spencer, who handles most of the court's administrative duties, recorded the 15-hour penalty in a notebook and adjourned the court.


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East Baltimore school's Student Court has dealt with many affairs and has contributed well in order to keep the original reputation of this educational institute. Here is online essay writing service for your assistance during essay writing. I was also the member of jury of this student court for once or two.