The commission’s report severely criticizes the zero-tolerance policies in public schools that cause “a less serious range of conduct” to be processed in court, condemning the frequent use of the justice system as a school disciplinarian. In discussing overuse of the courts and detention facilities for minor disciplinary infractions in schools, the report states, “there are alternatives that are much better and effective in ensuring a safe, secure and supportive environment for each child who attends school in Pennsylvania.”

....In 2006, Chester was a school district from which students were almost as likely to go to prison as attend college. In 2007, we initiated a peer justice youth court. The proceedings are similar to those in juvenile court, but court officials are all high school students. The respondent is given the opportunity to explain his actions to a judge and jury, and the jury issues its verdict.

Sentences are tailored to the offense. A student found destroying property might be asked to spend time with the school’s maintenance crew, or a youth might be ordered to apologize to a teacher. No matter what the sentence, all respondents receive mandatory jury duty as part of their disposition. The lessons – including conflict resolution, problem solving, teamwork and leadership – are invaluable.

The court works because, just as negative peer pressure contributes to bad behavior, positive peer pressure contributes to positive behavior. The court follows restorative justice principles in trying to restore the victim, school, neighborhood, family and offender. Youth court jurors tell the respondent, “We are not trying to punish you; we are trying to help you.”

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