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Students decide the fate of teen offenders in court

Student volunteer jurors attorneys recent sessiPorter County teen court included (from left front row) Adam Wood Bradley Hill MarkittJacks(back row

Student volunteer jurors and attorneys at a recent session Porter County teen court included (from left, front row) Adam Wood, Bradley Hill, Markitta Jackson, (back row, from left) Richard Gomez, Tiarra Williams and Brooklyn Sellers. | John Robbins/For the Post-Tribune

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A central tenet of American justice is the right to a trial by a jury of your peers. Portage Township schools are putting that notion to the test in teen court.

The idea is to let students — including former offenders — help decide the fate of other offenders. It started on a trial basis last year and has been expanded.

Student offenders who would have faced administrative punishments are now sent to teen court. Court sessions convene two to three times a month at the Porter County Courthouse.

Students rule in teen court — the judge is a volunteer law student from Valparaiso University, the defense and prosecuting attorneys are Portage High School student volunteers, the student jury includes volunteers as well as former offenders sentenced to jury duty. And of course, the defendants, called respondents in teen court, are students.

Student jurors don’t go easy on their classmates; not one student appearing in a recent teen court escaped without a sentence.

The only adults in the room are school administrative personnel, parents of the respondents, and teen court administrator Sandra Porter-Phillips.

She runs a similar program in Lake County. She was hired to run the Portage school program last year. The first year was deemed a success by the school board and expanded, meeting more often and including middle school students.

Not all student offenses end up in teen court. Some, such as tobacco, alcohol or drug use and fighting are dealt with either administratively or through the Porter County juvenile system, according to associate school administrator Jenn Sass.

“Our ultimate goal is to get the kids to school,” said Sass, so this year’s focus is attendance.

On a recent Monday night, third-year Valparaiso University law school student Chris Hammer heard five cases of excessive unexcused absences. Hammer is back for a second year as one of several teen court judges.

“The underlying charge may be the same but each person is different. They all have different life circumstances that influence their behavior,” Hammer said.

“My big goal here is education, not punishment.”

While volunteering is expected of Valparaiso University law students, Hammer says his pro bono work far exceeds requirements.

“I just like to be involved,” he said. “It’s interesting to work with young people you can shape and influence.”

Hammer presides over cases but jurors set the penalties, or what Hammer calls, “constructive sentences.”

Max Gill, assistant principal for attendance, watched the proceedings. He’s sent most of the students here.

“Apathy towards school seems to be the biggest problem of attendance,” said Gill.

After five unexcused absences, a student can be sent to teen court, said Gill, but only after other alternatives have been explored. These range from attending an afternoon after-school class, to in-school suspension and, finally, out-of-school suspensions of one to five days.

Night school or expulsion had been the previous final remedy, but teen court offers an alternative to expulsion.

The gravitas of the courtroom setting helps.

“It’s a program that shows the kids we mean business,” said Gill.

“Teen court is serious enough because it involves parents and court time,” he added. “With parental involvement in teen court we let the parents know how important attendance is.”

Gill said attendance affects how well a student performs in school.

“The bottom line is we want success for the students. Attendance is needed in order to succeed,” he says. When a student fails, “we fail too,” said Gill.

Attorneys for the defense and prosecution are prepped on each case.

At the recent court session, defense attorney Gina Chapa, 15, a freshman, asked each respondent to explain why they missed school, searching for evidence that would benefit her client.

Prosecutor Adam Wood, 14, also a freshman, asked each respondent to rank how important school is to them on a scale of one to ten. Almost everyone says “10.” He then grilled them on their understanding of the law that would allow the state to suspend their driver’s license — anathema to a teen.

Each student is asked if they have already been punished for their misdeeds, either by the school or parents or each. Most have.

Then the parents faced the attorneys. Most are aware of at least some of their child’s absences. The parent’s testimony gives a chance for them to fully understand the nature of the problem. Not all parents do, Gill notes.

Finally, it’s in the hands of the jurors. The judge outlined a range of sentences to consider, including letters of apology, community service and afterschool study tables. In all cases where a form of punishment is rendered, the sentence includes serving on three juries.

The jurors all take part in discussing a verdict; a unanimous decision is required. One discussion takes the better part of ten minutes.

One student is assigned to write a letter of apology (100-word minimum) to their parent, addressing the parent’s goals and plans for their child. Another respondent is required to establish a life goal plan and undergo academic counseling that would help them achieve that goal.

Volunteer jurors Richard Gomez, Brooklynn Sellers, Markitta Jackson and Tiarra Williams are all 17-year-old seniors.

“It’s a good opportunity to dip my feet in the area of law,” Gomez said. “It’s better for the student because we are their peers, we have a better understanding of student problems.”

Williams wants to “give consequences so the defendant won’t do it again,” she said. She believes “defendants leave with a better attitude than when they came in, in part because they see fellow students acting on their case.”

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