At two middle schools in Upper Darby, PA, students in an elective youth court class hear cases of student misconduct and issue dispositions that their classmates must fulfill. Administrators, parents—and even offending students—are embracing the youth court.
A 7th-grade student, Imani, was referred to the court for stealing from the cafeteria, which could have resulted in suspension if it wasn’t for the student court. The principals of the middle schools who now embrace the youth court “admitted they have previously been hard-wired to issue a suspension for offenses” according to the Daily Times News. In the student court, by contrast, there are three rounds of questioning: first to establish facts, second to define the harm, and third to identify how to redress the harm.
In this case, when Imani’s peer court heard her case, they issued a disposition requiring her to help with a service project at the school on Martin Luther King Jr. Day putting together care packages for people in need. “Imani and I now have a better relationship because she feels like I gave her an opportunity instead of suspending her,” said her principal Frank Salerno. “She was an all-star here helping [on MLK Day].”
Salerno explained, “While it’s not a get out of jail free card, it is going to be uncomfortable by design, but it’s really an opportunity to fix what you’ve done.”
The student courts in Upper Darby are an important part of what James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson call the “moral ecology” of a school community in The Content of Their Character, a summary of research findings in how school cultures shape character and citizenship development in American secondary schools from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. They write, “Schools constitute their own moral ecosystems and are sites that advance their own particular views about human life and the just society.” Schools are not alone in this work. “When social institutions—whether the family, peer relationships, youth organizations, the internet, religious congregations, entertainment, or popular culture—cluster together, they form a larger ecosystem of powerful cultural influences.”
Student courts play a powerful role in establishing the “just society” within a school community—and beyond. Frank Salerno said that the ripple effect extends to the families of offenders. He said they’ve had unanimous support from parents of students referred to the youth court, “almost to the point where parents have asked, ‘Can I come? This sounds like a great idea.'”
A youth court is one of the many practices that shape the moral ecology of a school. There are youth court resources and associations that vary state-by-state to help school leaders design, implement, and sustain this important practice.