“…the chances are quite high that your interests will not be given the same attention as the interests of those who do have a voice. If you have no voice, who will speak for you?”
– Robert A. Dahl, On Democracy
Imagine a world where young people are tried by a jury of their peers. I’m serious. Now, imagine a world where students—from grades ranging from 5th-12th grade—are responsible for determining the consequences that one of their peers, who may have broken a school rule, would have to face—a world where young people hold themselves accountable. In truth, you need not solely rely on your imagination to fathom the scenarios that I’ve just described; Youth Courts already provide students with opportunities to hold themselves accountable. However, the true value of Youth Courts lies beyond their ability to empower young people to utilize their voice as the means by which they hold themselves accountable. In addition to constituting a youth-focused accountability measure, Youth Courts promote the social-emotional development of young people by teaching them that their voice matters, and that they should expect to be taken seriously whenever they’ve been given an opportunity to express themselves. That, to a young person, is empowering.
The Problem: Exclusionary Discipline Model
Formally, Youth Courts are an alternative juvenile system of discipline that enables young people to utilize tribunal procedures (i.e having a lawyers file motions, having a judge hear the cases, etc.) as a means to hold their peers accountable for any infraction—both in and outside of school—that they may have committed. Yet, as I previously suggested, Youth Courts are intended to be a restorative alternative to more punitive measures, which, unfortunately, public schools often utilize as a way to deal with the perceived bad behavior of young people. These measures include, but are not limited to, suspensions (and expulsions, which occur infrequently) of students. As a result, the national suspension rate has more than doubled—from approximately 3.7% in 1973 to 7.4% at present. To give you an idea of how egregious that is, these figures (which have increased since having been recorded in 2010) amount to about three million children being suspended in one academic year, which is about the same number of children that it would take to fill every seat in every NFL stadium, and every major league baseball stadium in the USA, combined. If those numbers elicited a mental gasp, or a feeling of disbelief do not be alarmed; those are both appropriate responses to such shocking statistics.
The use of suspensions, and expulsions, as a means to account for student discipline constitutes an exclusionary model of student discipline, which is a branch of a broader category of zero-tolerance school disciplinary policies. Those policies are motivated by the assumption that the removal of offending students from schools would preserve the integrity of the academic environment, thereby resulting in the increased academic achievement of “good students.” While recounting the punitive measures used in Kentucky public schools, former AYPF Policy Intern, Christopher Lemos, provides a compelling case supporting the idea that this assumption actually does more harm than good. While highlighting the racial disparities among students who face punitive discipline in the state of Kentucky, Lemos writes, “…the racial gap between students who face punitive discipline is large: 13 percent of Black students were placed in a disciplinary program, while only 3.8 percent of White students and 3.7 percent of students in other ethnic categories were placed.” The validity of these figures is further corroborated by a Civil Rights Data Collection report, which suggests that similar numbers can be identified at the national level.
Given that zero-tolerance school policies are disproportionately targeting students of color, it also comes as no surprise that the academic achievement of students of color has been hindered at a higher rate than their white counterparts. Simply put, suspensions and expulsions result in students spending less time in a learning environment, which results in absenteeism. When cases of suspensions and expulsions occur repeatedly, the problem of absenteeism becomes a chronic problem. Unsurprisingly, removing students from school results in conditions that are unduly burdensome to their academic achievement. By now, your discomfort towards this issue should have graduated from a mental gasp to a perpetual state of disbelief. The question, “what should we do about this!?” should be playing in your mind like a broken record. Thankfully, there is a solution: Youth Courts.
Solution: Youth Courts
“Youth court is exciting. On the one hand, you have those incredibly talented students who cannot read or do math very well delivering incredible opening statements or presiding over proceedings with minimal help.”
– Zhicheng “John” Fan,
Youth Court Coordinator, Swarthmore College c/o 2019
I have spent the second half of my college career learning about, and participating in, the Youth Courts program in Chester, PA. If there is one thing I have learned from my experience teaching fifth and sixth graders how to utilize court procedures to hold their peers accountable for their actions is that Youth Courts truly are restorative. These Courts enable kids to realize that punishments do not have to be the only course of action when responding to a fellow student who may have committed an infraction. For example, when a student is late to school, Youth Courts provide a platform on which that student can provide context to explain their tardiness issue; often times, students are late due to circumstances that are beyond their control, and, thus, do not warrant any kind of punishment (i.e. having to catch multiple buses to get to school). Furthermore, the benefit of Youth Courts can be identified among older high school students, who often end up in juvenile justice facilities after having made a mistake. Unfortunately, these facilities are usually deprived of the educational resources necessary to ensure the successful educational attainment of the young people in those facilities. Zachary Malter, a current Policy Research Assistant at the American Youth Policy Forum, cogently lays out the barriers that juvenile detention facilities lacking adequate educational services present for students transitioning out of these facilities.
Thankfully, Youth Courts bypass the need for the use of these facilities altogether. These Courts effectively slow down the school-to-prison pipeline by keeping students in a learning environment even when they have been found to have infractions. Nevertheless, I believe that the true value of Youth Courts lies in their focus on the development of the young people who are actually holding the court hearings. Stoneleigh Foundation Fellow, Gregg Volz, writes, “[Youth Courts] allow students to participate and contribute to an improved” climate at their own schools. Thus, to me at least, the importance of Youth Courts lies in the youth themselves. By participating in Youth Courts, young people are using positive peer pressure to create an accountability system that works for them, all the while gaining leadership and other skills necessary for their educational—as well as post-secondary—success. Arguably most importantly, Youth Courts empower students to feel that it is possible to have an impact on the systems whose decision-making processes impact their lives.
Students who participate in programs like Youth Courts gain a sense of self-efficacy; they truly believe that their involvement in Youth Courts—and other systems that impact their lives—does matter. In 2010, high school students from Chester, PA testified at a State Senate hearing about their experience with alternative justice programs. One of the students’ testimony was particularly impactful: “Youth Courts became something that I could own because I had put so much of my time and effort into making it work.” Young people truly want to be part of the solution to the problems regarding student discipline, which plagues public schools across the country. We ought to listen to these young people and provide them with opportunities to hold themselves accountable. Youth Courts presents such an opportunity.
Louis Lainé is a Truman Scholar at the American Youth Policy Forum.