Jamar Sanders was a straight A student until ninth grade at Chester High School. After a rough transition, he lost interest in school, and his grade point average dropped to a 1.5 by the end of freshman year.
Saunders became the quiet but angry kid in the back of the room.
“I was a thug,” Sanders said. He was charged with “verbal abuse” for an incident, but instead of being penalized by the administration, he had the opportunity to choose: suspension or participation in a youth court hearing. Choosing youth court, he says, “changed [his] life.”
Shilpa Boppana ’11 spent her summer working as a Chester Fellow through the Lang Center to develop and expand the Chester Youth Court. Now, she and her three group members, Dan Hwang ’11, Josh Satre ’13 and Jenny Koch ‘13 are looking to expand their team into a small group of Swarthmore College volunteers that would help develop the program’s curriculum.
“Chester High School is a good school with great teachers, we just don’t have students willing to learn. They don’t see the benefits of education. They’re just there because they have to be,” Sanders said.
A youth court serves an alternative to the traditional structure of discipline in a school. It also takes on an academic role—allowing students to play all the parts in the courtroom from judge, to jury, to bailiff. The students heard their peers’ side of the story and then deliberate. Sentences are constructive, like community service or apology letter writing, rather than negative, like suspension, which many students just see as a mini-vacation.
Sanders’ involvement in youth court helped him raise his 1.5 GPA to a 3.8 by senior year. He got a VIP application from Drexel University and already knows he will be attending next fall to study biomedical engineering. He says the youth court program has helped him grow, mature, and develop real friendships.
“[The youth court] empowers students to intervene in the lives of their peers,” Boppana said, who professes an interest in education and law as well as a concern with the school-to-prison pipeline often seen in struggling communities.
“The streets are dangerous [in Chester], a lot of families are in crisis and the schools don’t have adequate funding. Kids don’t have a good system supporting them. [The youth court] is an anchor that allows them to realize they can contribute to their environment, and make it better,” Gregg L. Volz said, who began the Chester Youth Court program in 2007.
Volz is an attorney and fellow at the Stoneleigh Foundation, which focuses developing new ideas and approaches for improving the lives of underserved young people. He has championed the program at the state level, taking Sanders and others to testify before the House Committee on Children and Youth. He has been working along Swarthmore students to develop the youth court since 2005.
In 2008, the youth court model was integrated into the Social Studies curriculum. Now, the program is taking off, with a grant from Chester High to lower truancy rates and to open branches at Science and Discovery and Allied Health high schools in Chester, as well as The Village Charter School, a middle school. He hopes to create a youth court statute for Pennsylvania using private and public funding to expand the system.
Boppana and others have been crucial to the development of the program, Volz says. “Were it not for the support for Swarthmore college students I would not be here.”