April 28, 2015 – Three years ago, a young man entered Rochester Teen Court after pleading guilty to a disorderly conduct charge. A judge had referred him to the program where a jury of his peers would determine his sentence.
“This young man was likeable instantly, but he truly struggled to complete his sanctions,” said Valerie Tisdale, program coordinator. “I remember having to make continuous calls and reschedule obligations a couple times to ensure his completion, and while he was participating, he unfortunately found himself back in the system with a new charge.
“We were devastated.”
Tisdale, who has been with Teen Court for 12 years, is not one to give up – especially when it comes to the young people she serves in her role – and for good reason. The majority of Teen Court defendants complete their sanctions, and most do not reoffend, which is the ultimate goal.
In 2014, 126 youth defendants voluntarily participated in Teen Court after accepting responsibility for their actions in a traditional courtroom. With a judge presiding and teen attorneys arguing each side, teen jurors listen and ultimately recommend sanctions that include community service, a letter of apology, counseling, decision-making workshops, essays and other forms of restitution.
“Teen volunteers are so important,” Tisdale said. “They can empathize and have a much better insight as to what may work for a young person to turn themselves around.”
In addition to monthly adjudicative sessions, Teen Court hosts restorative justice sessions in which youth defendants discuss their actions in a group of their peers under the guidance of local attorneys.
This model, combined with the overall success of Teen Court, attracted the attention of Carol Jones, the principal at Vanguard Collegiate High School in the Rochester City School District, who wanted to effectively address negative student behavior in school. The Center for Youth helped Jones implement a restorative justice program in December.
“We have lowered our suspension rate, and we’re keeping kids in class to raise achievement,” said Jones, noting that the number of suspensions has nearly been cut in half. “We’re teaching kids how to own responsibility for their actions.”
Leading the new program are Hughan Reid and Kimberly Scott, a teacher and college and career advisor by day and Center for Youth staff after school. When a student is assigned to the Restorative Justice Program, Reid and Scott receive a report of the incident and the student’s report card and attendance record. Similar to the Teen Court process, they contact the student’s parents to discuss any issues and get permission for that student to participate in after-school restorative justice sessions.
“We really have to meet these students where they’re at,” Scott said. “This program is allowing us to build relationships with students and parents that we couldn’t before.”
“Restorative justice works,” Reid said. “Often, simple conversations can handle behavioral issues.”
Tisdale has learned a similar lesson during her tenure at Teen Court.
“One of the greatest things I’ve learned is, most of the time, just sit back and listen. For most young people, that’s one of their greatest needs – just to be heard.”
With a lot of listening and a little bit of persistence, Tisdale has helped process more than 1,000 cases for Teen Court. And she points to the case of that young man who came to Teen Court three years ago as a reflection of the program’s positive impact. Despite his challenges, the young man completed the Teen Court sanctions for his first offense and went on to complete the court-ordered community service for his second offense. Both charges were dismissed. He became a Teen Court volunteer before graduating from high school.
The young man recently graduated from Monroe Community College and obtained gainful employment. He has not been involved with the criminal justice since participating in Teen Court.“Since that time, I have run into him,” Tisdale said, “and he always expresses how Teen Court ‘saved his life.’”
Rochester Teen Court 2014
126 youth defendants participated
83% of defendants completed sanctions
129 teens served as jurors, attorneys and court clerks for a total of 1,888 volunteer hours.
Restorative Justice at Vanguard
(Implemented in Dec. 2014)
2013-14: 353 suspensions through March
2014-15: 172 suspensions through March