Cooley Law students help teens run own court

‘Restorative’program helps students see how behavior negatively impacts the school

By Jo Mathis
Legal News

Students at Cooley Law School’s Ann Arbor campus hail from all over the world. Right from the start, Dean Joan Vestrand makes it clear that during their three years here, their new home is Washtenaw County, and that they should make a difference here.

Since its inception in January of 2012, the Ypsilanti High School Student Court is one of the ways Cooley students do just that.

The court works like this: The principals of Ypsilanti High School’s Global Leadership and Public Policy Academy and Improvisational Academy for the Arts (both located within the high school) provide Cooley students with disciplinary cases in which students have admitted responsibility.

The cases are then taken to the Student Court, with all supporting roles — jurists, clerks, bailiffs, judge, lawyers — filled by high school and Cooley Law School students.

“It’s all restorative,” said Vestrand. “It helps the student see how their behavior negatively impacts the school, other students, the school environment, and help them appreciate that impact and want to make amends. And for the first time ever, it gives high school students a stake in their own school environment.”

Before coming to Cooley, Vestrand often represented youths facing delinquency charges.

“These proceedings with your client in a courtroom with a judge or referee, the kid was pretty much angry, unwilling to listen, felt there was unfair treatment, going through the motions,” she said.
“When you put a teenager in front of their peers, it’s a completely different dynamic. They take it seriously, they’re embarrassed, they give thoughtful responses. There’s just a whole different feel.”

Vestrand worked on setting up such a court in Ypsilanti High School using a template of sort from the Lansing Teen Court, and then introduced it to YHS administrators.

The Student Court not only gives high school students the chance to consider careers in law, it lets them see a thoughtful way of handling conflict. Meanwhile, Cooley students gain experience themselves.

Cooley Law student Alexis Neal is in her second year with the Student Court.

 “I want to help give these kids an opportunity to gain firsthand, hands-on knowledge of the court system process and at the same time try and steer them away from one day having to go through it themselves,” she said. “Also, coming from Detroit and being an African American woman, I want to show the kids that someone just like them can become anything they put their minds to and be successful in it. I want them to see me, hear my story, know where I'm from and what it took for me to get here, and say, `Well if she can do it, then so can I!’"

At a recent Ypsilanti Student Court, the jurists decided that the student, who had arrived late to class before arguing with and swearing at a classmate, should maintain both verbal and written communications with the “accountability mentor,” (a Cooley Law student), attend school on time and demonstrate progress in all classes, work to improve relationships that were harmed resulting from the offense, train and serve on a jury of the Student Court, and write an apology for the offense.

Once the student completes all aspects of the jury’s disposition, there’s no school record of the infraction.

YPS Superintendent Dedrick Martin said he’s impressed with Vestrand’s dedication and desire to give back to the community, and said he’s grateful she approached him two years ago with the idea.

“I’ve had the chance to sit in on one of the court cases, and it’s just amazing,” he said. “It’s refreshing to see their maturity, and how seriously they’re taking this process, from the person who’s dealing with the infraction to the kids on the jury. It’s been phenomenal working with the law students.”

Feedback from the high school students has been 100 percent positive, said Vestrand, noting that they report feeling empowered and involved, and appreciate the ability to help a fellow student learn from mistakes.

Neal hopes the program spreads to more high schools, especially those in inner cities.

“They are so young and impressionable and a lot of times they don’t always make the right decisions,” she said of the high school students. “I believe that by participating in these various roles, the kids are not only learning how to be more productive and responsible students, but they are also learning how to take responsibility for their actions.”