I Have to Ask: Teen Court

Posted on April 26, 2020

Leanna Jasek

In this series, ELGL Co-Founder Kent Wyatt poses three questions to the guest columnist, and the guest columnist selects one to reflect on. This week, Leanna Jasek-Rysdahl, Teen Court/Youth Services Coordinator for the City of Lone Tree, Colorado, writes about the positive ripples of Teen Court.

There are over 1,000 Teen Court programs around the nation and each one operates differently. In the City of Lone Tree, Colorado, our Teen Court is offered as an alternative to Municipal Court for juveniles (more details can be found on our website). If a teen and their family choose to participate in Teen Court, they are interviewed by a group of teens in a Peer Panel. In the panels, teen volunteers ask questions to the parent(s) and teen respondent about the incident, who the incident impacted, and how to repair the harm caused. The panel uses the responses to create an individualized sentence which can consist of items such as community service, jury duty (serving on a future panel), art projects, apology letters, recording goals, and interviews with a police officer.  

Lone Tree Teen Court uses restorative practices throughout the program, which means that accountability, community stakeholders, voice, and relationships are used to help repair the harm caused.  I often explain restorative justice by talking about the ripples of impact that an individual’s action creates. Each policy and program in government also initiates ripples of impacts and since communities are webs of relationships, these ripples are felt by a considerable number of individuals. Our Teen Court creates positive ripples in communities by 1) enhancing relationships, 2) creating future leaders, and 3) fostering innovation through civic engagement.  

Teen Court

Enhance relationships  

At its core, restorative justice focuses on relationships. I would even claim that relationships are foundational to most entities and operations, including government. I have seen relationships built, repaired, and improved through Teen Court and it is one of the more immediate ways one can see Teen Court working in the community. During our panels, teen volunteers inquire about how trust was broken after the incident and how to repair this trust. Usually panelists and families have remarkable ideas about how to start working to repair what was damaged. It is amazing to observe our volunteers and Teen Court participants form connections with one another and reinforce the message that each person is an important part of the community.

Create future leaders 

In the next ripple, Teen Court works on developing future community leaders. Our Teen Court is led by the teens and this ownership translates to investment both in the program and their community. Recently, our Teen Court Student Leadership Board (a cohort of seven teens who meet monthly to plan events and improve Teen Court) gave a presentation to the City Council that elaborated on the logistics of Teen Court, as well as projects that their group contributed to the program. The group developed the slides, polished their speaking skills, and practiced numerous times in order to present in an intimidating setting. Our teens also attend multiple trainings to enhance their listening skills, motivational questioning, and knowledge on restorative justice, courts and the legal system, and the City. Teens are brilliant and it is inspiring to see them funnel their intelligence, creativity, and energy to help others in our community. Our hope is that our volunteers take these lessons to become well-rounded and empathic young leaders of tomorrow. 

Foster innovation through civic engagement 

In the outermost ripple, our Teen Court acts as one of our local government initiatives that adheres to our city’s mission statement: “We will achieve Lone Tree’s Community Vision by doing things the best way, not just the expected way.” Teen Court relies on collaborative work with teen and adult volunteers, respondent feedback, and involvement from police officers, court clerks, Councilmembers, and other city employees. Teen Court successfully implements new practices because all voices are encouraged to be heard and sincerely listened to by everyone involved. Because of this, we now hold Saturday panels to expand accessibility, we implemented video interviews with police officers, and have teens host trainings for other volunteers. Individuals actively contribute and innovate because their ideas are heard and added to the program. It exemplifies the very best in civic engagement, demonstrating that government excels when everyone, even younger citizens, have the chance to participate.   

As I write during a time when the Coronavirus is changing the world, I have had inquiries from teen volunteers and Teen Court participants asking about how they can help. The hard work that the teen volunteers put into the program is ongoing and motivational. They remind me of the quote from John Paul Lederach, “Pessimism born of cynicism is a luxurious avoidance of engagement.” During this difficult time when the fabric of our communities is essential, we can count on our teen leaders to bolster volunteerism and civic engagement with skills they utilize in panels every week.

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