by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Pedro faces a "courtroom" of his peers
One day Pedro decided to smoke pot on campus. The act was witnessed by other students and parents after school. Pedro even posted about smoking pot on Facebook, removing any doubt the act had occurred.
Freshly back from suspension, the 13-year-old now faces a “courtroom” of his peers to make things right. He agrees to accept whatever “sentence” the Peer Court decides upon to “expunge” his suspension.
Peer Court, developed by sixth-grade math teacher and school climate/culture specialist Karen Junker at Davidson Middle School in San Rafael, uses a “restorative justice” approach to lower suspension rates and improve behavior. The rationale is that students can’t learn if they miss school.
Over the past five years the Peer Court has brought a turnaround at the campus, where more than half of students are economically disadvantaged. Before Peer Court, the school of fewer than 900 students had 375 suspensions per year — with a highly disproportionate number of Latino students suspended. The school lost an estimated $35,000 in state revenue annually from suspensions. Last year, in comparison, there were just 40 suspensions and only three cases of recidivism, says Junker, San Rafael Teachers Association, who says the 85 percent decrease in suspensions coincided with an 85-point rise in the school’s API scores.
Suspension for minor infractions, such as willful defiance, theft and bullying, are reduced through a “diversion” program where youths agree to make positive changes as an alternative to suspension. While serious offenses — weapons or drugs — require suspension under the Education Code, the Peer Court gives students like Pedro a chance to remove suspensions from their school record in exchange for making positive changes. It’s a way of putting rehabilitation above punishment, rewarding good behavior and wiping the slate clean.
Court’s in session
Accompanied by his father, Pedro walks into the classroom-turned-courtroom. He sits up front, next to an administrator. At first he is smirking, but the semi-circle of student panelists surrounding Pedro make it clear that it’s no laughing matter.
Pedro says he has smoked pot before “many times,” and even though he knew it was “stupid,” he brought it to school. He admits that it made him feel “cool,” and says he is flunking most of his classes, including PE.
When asked how his behavior affected others, Pedro looks puzzled.
“Do you think that parents who saw you doing this might not want to send their kids here?” asks one of the panelists.
“Have you considered that people might not trust you anymore?” asks another.
Pedro’s father says through an interpreter that he had a drinking problem, but quit drinking so that he could be a better father to his son. Now he is disappointed to see his son engaged in substance abuse.
Pedro tells the courtroom he feels sad because he has let so many people down.
“My father is disappointed in me. He can’t trust me being alone with my friends. I feel stupid.”
Pedro tells the panelists that he would like to regain the trust of his family, stop smoking pot and do better in school. Then he goes into the hallway with his father and the assistant principal while the court ponders his fate.
The 3 R’s
“We emphasize Repair, Restore and Reintegrate,” says Junker, who gave a presentation about the program at a panel discussion during the October CTA State Council meeting. “Students must repair the damage they have done, restore our confidence and reintegrate into the school. It’s beyond simply meting out punishment. It’s about helping students learn from their mistakes. It’s important that this happen. Studies show that students suspended twice in middle school — and failing math — are five times more likely to wind up in jail.”
Junker emphasizes that running a Peer Court can’t be done by just anyone; it requires training in restorative justice practices. She created the curriculum for training the panelists, which is based on asking offending students key questions that lead to reflection and then giving a “sentence” that involves making positive changes such as tutoring, counseling or participating in school activities.
Panelists aren’t always “goody-two-shoes.” Wilbert Hernandez, now a panelist, was an offending student in Peer Court last year after being disruptive in class. Wiping away tears, the eighth-grader explains that the court helped him turn his life around and made him aware that he was acting out in school because he was angry at being separated from his father. He was sentenced to tutoring and counseling sessions.
“I was throwing all my ability away,” says Hernandez. “Going through the court’s suspension diversion program made me realize I was making horrible choices. I have turned my life around. Instead of getting D’s and F’s, I’m now getting A’s and B’s.”
For many students, Peer Court is a way of giving back.
“I like helping people get through their problems,” says eighth-grader Victoria Robbins, who has been on the court since seventh grade. “I like helping people repair the damage that has been done.”
Eighth-grader Bailey Bowler believes the program works because students listen to each other.
“I’m one of them. Sometimes it helps to hear something from a classmate rather than from an adult.”
During the proceedings, adults let students run the show.
“I don’t make decisions — the students do,” says Junker. “I only jump in if it’s unjust.”
She comments that earlier that morning a white student also faced the Peer Court for a drug offense.
“I want to make sure the same thing happens to the brown kid that happens to the white kid,” says Junker. (It does.)
During deliberations, panelists express concern for Pedro and discuss how they can help him get on a better path, showing wisdom far beyond their years. Pedro returns with his father to hear their decision. Panelists tell him he must write apology letters to his family, the school and the community. Pedro must go to drug counseling at Huckleberry House and volunteer there a few times a week. He must also go to tutoring, find an after-school activity that he enjoys, and do chores at home to stay out of trouble.
“He will be very busy,” whispers Junker. “But hopefully it will keep him from repeating a grade.”
Pedro agrees to all of the conditions.
“Thanks for having me in court,” he says. “I will get it all done.”
Later, he confides that he is pleased with the court’s decision.
“It’s better than having a suspension on my record.”
His father is also pleased.
“I think the court came up with excellent ideas in how to help my son,” he says. “He learned a lot. Hopefully, he learned that he doesn’t want to ever go to a real court, so he needs to stop using drugs, change his friends and stay out of trouble.”
Story update: Three months later, Pedro completed his drug counseling sessions, did most of the tutoring, completed all his chores and hasn’t missed a day of school. At the time of the court he was earning F's in three classes. But at the end of the quarter he passed all his classes and is no longer in danger of being retained in eighth grade.
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