Students judge their peers
Lincoln High School debuts new Youth Court; program to become a model for city schools
by E. Assata Wright
Reporter staff writer
May 19, 2013 | 1811 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Lincoln High School debuted its recently renovated Youth Court to the public on May 8. The court has been renovated and redesigned to mimic authentic courtrooms.
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Teachers and school administrators throughout Jersey City – and elsewhere, for that matter – say that students who are disciplinary problems are disruptive to school communities and make it difficult for them to function and educate children properly. Unruly students, they say, take time, energy, and resources away from a school’s larger mission of education.

Now, a handful of students at Abraham Lincoln High School are engaging in an experimental model program that administrators hope will eventually reduce the number of disciplinary cases throughout the Jersey City Public School District.

Last week, students at Lincoln began hearing disciplinary cases in the school’s new Youth Court, which the district unveiled in a ribbon-cutting ceremony held on May 8.

Part of the high school’s Leadership Academy and the Legal Professions Small Learning Community, Youth Court will enable students in the program to hear cases involving peers who have committed small infractions and recommend sanctions for those students.

The types of cases that might be referred to Youth Court include those of students who used their cell phones in class, yelled at a teacher, or who persistently talk in class.

School administrators will handle more serious offenses.
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While not all of the students participating in Youth Court are planning a career in law or law enforcement, many clearly are and are using the experience to learn more about their future career path.
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“What we’re trying to do here is use positive peer pressure to guide and change student behavior through Youth Court,” said Natasha Walker, a Lincoln High School teacher who is working with the teens in the program.

The Youth Court concept, she said, is modeled after similar Youth Courts that already exist in the Newark and New York City public schools. The program was recommended and initially fostered in Jersey City by former school board member Marvin Adames, the municipal judge in Newark.

“Right now, Youth Court will be limited to Lincoln High School, since the program is new,” Walker explained. “But we hope eventually to hear cases in other schools and then spread the Youth Court model to other schools in the district.”

The courtroom the students will use was recently renovated and features a jury box, prosecution and defense tables, and a witness stand.

Preparation for legal careers

While not all of the students participating in Youth Court are planning a career in law or law enforcement, many clearly are and are using the experience to learn more about their future career path.

“I’m interested in finding justice for people who don’t usually get it,” said one Youth Court participant, who, appropriately enough, is named Justice Baskin. A Lincoln sophomore, Baskin said he joined Youth Court at Walker’s suggestion and hopes to one day attend Harvard Law School. Eventually, he would like to be a judge and he played the role of a judge in one of two mock trials Walker and her students enacted for the public recently.

“The United States is one of the best countries in the world. And our court system is very well organized,” Baskin stated. “I want to help get justice for people who think they can’t get it in court.”

Michelle Hayes, another Youth Court participant, said she is also interested in a career in law and is currently planning to be a prosecutor.

“I became interested in Youth Court because I was already participating in the mock trial team,” Hayes said.

The school’s mock trial team enacts mock cases so students can sharpen their debate, analytical, and public speaking skills. Students argue these fictitious cases before real judges at Hudson County Superior Court, who offer feedback.

The case of the loud and angry student

To demonstrate how Youth Court will operate, Hayes, Baskin, and their peers presented two mock trials on May 8 when Lincoln High School’s newly renovated courtroom was unveiled for the public.

In the first case, one student, Cory Younger, played the role of the “defendant,” a student whose offense was that he mouthed off at a math teacher in class after not turning in a homework assignment.

Younger was defended in the mock session by Hayes while another student, Abanob Mikaeel, played the role of the prosecutor. (In Youth Court, however, both the defense and prosecuting “attorneys” are actually referred to as “youth advocates.”)

A fourth student, Mecca Council, served as the judge for the mock trial, while Tahj Wright filled the role of the bailiff. Eleven students served as jurors who were given an opportunity to ask Younger questions before handing down a punishment in the case.

Among the extenuating circumstances that were revealed through the juror’s questions was that the “defendant” lived alone with an aging and ill grandmother and was serving as her caretaker.

In this particular mock case, the students who acted as jurors required that the “defendant” write a letter of apology and take a time management workshop.

Once up and running, these students will hear similar cases and will have the authority to recommend that their peers be required to write letters of apology, write self-reflective essays, perform community service, or participate in behavior modification workshops.

Each Youth Court session begins with the students taking an oath of confidentiality. Once they begin hearing real cases, they will be barred from discussing the cases outside the court.

Since students must accept guilt for an alleged offense as part of the Youth Court process, students who say they did not commit an alleged offense are ineligible for Youth Court sanctions. Students who maintain their innocence must go through the traditional disciplinary channels.

E-mail E. Assata Wright at awright@hudsonreporter.com.

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