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Behind-the-Scenes, Education

Teen Court

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Attended:  April 8, 2013.

When I arrived most young people and guardians were already there waiting, as instructions say to arrive early at 4:45. The chairs and standing room around the walls of a small waiting area, and down a hallway inside a second waiting area were full. Immediately inside the door of the building, before you step into the first area is a metal detector and I had my bag thoroughly searched by a guard. I learned that the outdoor entrance to this part of the building locks at 5 o’clock.

Most everyone of the “teens” who were testifying had made an apparent effort to dress well. Shirts were tucked in, and some button downs were obviously new, still with crease marks from the package. Teen Court takes place in a small, windowless interior “courtroom,” with a raised judges’ box about 5 feet up and a “defendants'” box on the floor next to it. A “jury” of six sits behind a half-wall to one side of the room. There was a chalk board on a stand with a few small matchbox-type cars attached to it, but this wasn’t used. It was a warm, slightly stuffy room with an air freshener attached to the front wall. There were 32 fold-up stadium style seats, and about 24 young people (approx. seven of them girls, and seven were under 13 years old), plus parents/grandparents/guardians. Most of these ended up standing in the back of the room for the hour or so of the court.

First, there was the getting organized and administrative tasks. Checking the list of names with the young people in attendance. We all sat in silence for awhile, waiting. All sound in the room seemed muffled. Some were there for their hearings, and some were there serving their required number of jury duties. Then a male voice said, “All rise,” and the judge entered. While we were all standing he gave the “defendants” a defendants’ oath, since he explained they were testifying. He recited, “Will you well and truly try the case submitted to you? You may opt out.” When we all sat down he shared some advice not to, “resolve disputes with physical confrontation,” and to “learn adult ways” to handle “obnoxious, unpleasant people.”

Then the first person sat in the box and he asked him, “Do you know any of the people on the jury?” Then asked the jury, “Do you know him, or of him?” If they did, then they’d be replaced with some other jurors. So the young people cycled around the first rows of seats and the jury box as the time passed. The first “defendant” chose not to explain his case. He was accused of a “class 4 offense” which was “assault.” He received 60 hours of community service. His race was Hispanic. [I mention this because the racial make-up of the room struck me while I was observing. I believe that some important observations can be made along these lines.]

The young people were reminded by the coordinator to address the judge with “No, sir,” and to follow the court rules which included good posture. In other words no slouching in the seats while waiting your turn. The judge asked each one about their involvement in sports. The next defendant had been driving with a restricted license with too many friends in the car. He was a three-sport athlete. He received 43 hours of community service. The choice for the jury for this offense was between 31 – 45 hours. His race was Anglo. He attended Wylie High. The judge mentioned that these tickets go on a person’s adult driving record and can result in higher insurance premiums later in life – up to $100/month.

The judge chatted with the next young woman about her part-time job at a restaurant and about her involvement in Track. She was driving without a license, and also had some other driving offense. She received 32 and 25 hours respectively, and planned to serve the time at the Animal Shelter. Her race was apparently Hispanic. She was an Abilene High student. Seven people under 13 were not eligible for community service and so were given jury duty times. One of these was Anglo. The rest were Hispanic or Black. I believe they all attended Clack or Mann middle schools.

The next young woman had thrown something on the bus and hit the driver (Craig middle school). The next young man had driven a car a short distance from his apartment and while parking, had hit the gas instead of the brake and drove into part of a building. He received 6 jury services. There followed some offenses ranging from “violation of education code,” to “disorderly conduct” and “excessive talking.” These received jury services only.

The only young man to explain what had happened in his case (he was wearing a suit and tie, an A.T.E.M.S. student), described driving outside Cooper High School where he couldn’t see around a parked car, when another car pulled out in front of him and he hit it. Since he was technically at fault, he got the ticket. The jury gave him 36 hours of community service. The judge mentioned he thought that was a light sentence. I think the teens know that area, and that it’s difficult. The judge and the coordinator were both apparently Anglo.

What it’s meant to be: To ‘scare students straight’, wake them up, give them a taste of what will happen in the real world of the legal system if they make future bad decisions and choices.

What actually happens: I’m not sure if the stated or original goals of teen court are being fulfilled. Instead it seems like perhaps a punitive, ineffective system that is attempting to do something that it’s maybe not set up to do (help maintain or restore or further order in the schools).

Observations: A few students seemed chagrined and contrite, and affected by the experience. Others appeared to be seasoned, bored, perhaps beaten-down members of a crowd that is used to being the ones in trouble. There’s something going on here culturally I think — I’m not quite sure what it is, but I think it would be good for someone to analyze in order to improve the efficacy of the system somehow — or get something else in place that would work better.

My Take/Questions:

* Are there handouts, literature, training about how better to handle anger and confrontation? I asked one grandmother, and she said no, they hadn’t received anything as a part of the Teen Court process.

* “Adults” who misbehave / are poor role models are perhaps plentiful in some of these young people’s lives, therefore I believe they should be acknowledged as young adults themselves, and expected to behave accordingly and with restraint, responsibility and initiative.

* How and where can these things be taught (in Abilene) if they’re not learned at home?

* I’d like to know how this arm of the law plays into the school system. What do teachers and educators experience in the classroom that they use this means to try and achieve order? How is the system (Teen Court) perceived by the students? What is it’s reputation with young people? Especially ones who experience it?

Teen Court sounds good on paper. Also, it’s something and that’s a lot more than nothing. I wonder though, if it’s purpose is being fulfilled in the way it was intended, or if it could benefit from some updates. Or is it even furthering some unintended negative effects.

http://www.abilenetx.com/TeenCourt/index.htm

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