Teen peacemakers see how it's done at county courthouse

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By Jo Mathis
Legal News
 
Members of the new Cooley/Ypsilanti Community High School Peacemaking Court took  a field trip to the Washtenaw County Courthouse Tuesday.
The goal was two-fold: to celebrate the conclusion of their court’s first season; and to pick up a few tips from Judge Tim Connors, who presides over a peacemaking pilot program in Washtenaw County—one of only two in the country.
Before inviting them to observe some domestic relations cases in his courtroom—where an adult peacemaker sat in the witness box—Connors praised the students for being the first school in the area to start a peacemaking court, which uses Native American principles.
“Ann Arbor’s really jealous of you,” he said. “They say, ‘What are they doing in Ypsilanti? How do we do that?’”
“I am pleased to see that youth are leading the way for us to think about a healthier way to resolve conflict,” Connors said, noting that the process includes respectful dialogue; a focus on the importance of relationships; and affirmation of individual and collective responsibilities to each other and to the community.
The Cooley/Ypsilanti Community High School Peacemaking Court debuted this year, its roll-out timed with the recent merger between Ypsilanti and Willow Run high schools. 
It was the brainchild of Joan Vestrand, dean of Cooley Law School’s Ann Arbor campus.
 “The Cooley/Ypsilanti Community High School Peacemaking Court is a restorative justice initiative founded in the truth that in order to get respect, you must first give it,” Vestrand said. “Too, it gives students a stake in their own high school community and empowers them to care for and help one another. Part of the program’s requirement is that a respondent wrongdoer comes full circle. In the end, the wrongdoer returns as a peacemaker — becoming part of the solution. After all, we can always go around again and there is always a second chance.” 
Chris Schaedig was among the Cooley Law School students who worked on the high school’s Peacemaking Court this spring.
“To me, it’s clear that they take it seriously, that it makes them feel like they’re a larger part of the community, and that they’re part of the solution rather than some passive observer,” Schaedig said “No matter how well the respondents comply with what they’re supposed to do, that has value in and of itself.”
YCHS?senior Ta’Shara Hutton, 17, said the high school court is a better alternative than automatic suspension. 
“It gives students a second chance to do what they’re supposed to do,” said Hutton, who hopes to go into law or criminal justice one day.
The court’s roots go back a few years, when Vestrand occasionally served as a judge in the Lansing Teen Court, an option in some Ingham County cases in which some youths can go before a jury of peers for sentencing. 
“It was easy for me to see the stark contrast between the Teen Court and our traditional juvenile system,” Vestrand recalled. “Wrongdoers whose matters were decided in Teen Court seemed to take the situation more seriously perhaps out of concern for their peers’ view of them. There seemed to be more insight into personal accountability and a greater willingness on the part of the defendant to address any problems at the root of poor choices.”
Believing that the Teen Court concept could address student code of conduct violations inside high schools, Vestrand designed a Teen Court that would hopefully help change behavior before it became criminal. The result was Cooley/Ann Arbor’s successful launch of a Teen Court inside what was then Ypsilanti High School.
Cooley students helped to run the proceedings, serving as the judge and handling other administrative roles. 
“The teen jurors relished in their work on behalf of a fellow student and, the respondent wrongdoers seemed to appreciate the process and grow from the experience,” Vestrand said. 
After the first year of that court, Vestrand was introduced to the concept of peacemaking on a visit to the Red Hook Brooklyn NY Community Court. She then tweaked the student court program to embrace as its central focus, peacemaking. 
The new peacemaking model no longer uses peer jurors who excuse themselves for private deliberation and determination of a “sentence.”
Instead, the jurors, as peacemakers, work with the respondent wrongdoer to get to the bottom of the behavior, find out why it happened, and determine with him or her what needs to be done to repair the harm.
Schaedig said the criminal system typically leaves all parties feeling bad, and with questions unanswered. 
Using Native American techniques in Cooley/YCHS’s peacemaking court rather than the tradition guilty vs. innocent model helps get to the root of the matter, he said.
“It’s not just that you’ve violated the student code and now you’re going to be punished,” said Schaedig. “It’s, ‘OK, let’s look at this offender as a person, figure out what’s going on, why they’re behaving as they are, and what we can do as a community to change that behavior while still making the victim feel whole and appreciated as well.”
 

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