Philly, and other Pa. school districts, can learn from Chester City's radically transformative youth courts | Opinion

A youth court session in 2015 at Chester High School.

I first stepped into a Chester classroom last summer, as a volunteer for youth court. It was my first exposure to urban education in America. And it was the first time many of those fifth graders had seen a college student, let alone a foreigner from China.

In a youth court, peer volunteers hear cases of student offenses that would otherwise be managed by the principal or teachers. Students play the roles of judge, bailiff, youth advocate, jury foreperson, and jurors. I was working in Chester with public interest lawyer Gregory Volz to teach students how to run such courts.

Chester City is considered one of the poorest cities in America and is in one of the most under-resourced school districts. Over four weeks, I taught the students how to speak confidently, ask effective questions, and help misbehaving students recognize and fix their mistakes.

School-based youth court programs were originally devised as an alternative to punitive school discipline that disproportionately affects students of color. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, students who are removed from school due to misbehavior are significantly more likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system the next year. This phenomenon, known as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” is a national crisis.

I was initially skeptical that a student-run disciplinary program could be more effective than one handled by professionals. I was wrong.

As the Chester high school students explained to me, adults usually assume the teacher is right and the student is wrong. In youth court, peer volunteers listen to both sides of the story and try to help rather than punish respondents (the youth court term for student offenders). On more than one occasion, respondents told us that in a youth court, “At least they [peer volunteers] listen to me.”

Research on youth court has shown that peers are better than adults at improving student behavior. Disciplinary data also support the courts’ effectiveness. In A.M.Y. (Alternative Middle Years) at James Martin School in Philadelphia, the suspension rate was reduced by 34 percent in the first year of youth court.

Since last summer, I have helped train about seven  youth court classes, most of them in Chester. My students range from shy fifth graders who make unexpectedly good judges to eloquent high schoolers who impress even the lawyers in the room. What many trainers and I are often surprised by is the radical transformation that happens to these peer volunteers.

A.M.Y. social studies teacher John Papiano, for example, remarks that students “develop empathy and compassion that I have never seen in 15 years of teaching middle school. Students that have been in my youth court are genuinely ready to move to high school. Many of them could create a youth court on their own.”

Students who have been labeled “academically underachieving” often perform exceptionally well in the program. The development of an academic mind-set and social and leadership skills is significant.

Youth court is also a powerful civics training program. As an American Bar Association report suggests, youth court teaches students to be law-abiding and responsible citizens. Christina Delva, chief of staff for State Rep. Brian Kirkland (D., Delaware), credits her youth court experience with motivating her career in government and politics.

Youth court has been an eye-opener for me and my students. The level of trust the program instills in them is extraordinary. The spirited debates and democratic decision-making are unlike anything I’ve seen as a Chinese student and citizen. And the values taught are American: rule of law, individual responsibility, and democratic governance.

This program is an experiment in deliberative democracy. It asserts that disadvantaged students should be considered assets and partners in the struggle against injustice, not problems that need to be “fixed.”

It is clear that youth court is an effective program. It helps keep students in school and enriches their curriculum. And 25 of the 45 states with youth courts have enacted legislation to support the program.

Now, legislators in Harrisburg have an opportunity to show their support. Senate Resolution 32 would establish an advisory committee to study the implementation of youth courts statewide. The resolution, introduced by State Sen. Lawrence Farnese (D., Phila.), was reported out of the Judiciary Committee with no opposition. The full Senate should now demonstrate its commitment to justice for young people by voting on this measure.

John Fan is a junior studying philosophy and mathematics at Swarthmore College. You can reach him at zfan1@swarthmore.edu