Teens hold court

On appearance, it looks and sounds like real court.

There’s a judge, a jury, defendants and attorneys.

There’s even a sworn Newton police officer who serves as the court’s “bailiff.”

However, when the “charges” are discussed and the verdict is read, it’s clear this isn’t exactly a court room.

“The jury thinks the defendant should do one day of silent lunch and write their teacher an apology letter,” read Austin Drum, a sixth-grade student at Newton-Conover Middle School and the lead juror at the school’s Teen Court recently.

Austin is one of nearly a dozen NCMS students who participate in the Teen Court once a week after school.

Rotating roles and dealing with real school issues, the court is in its second year of handing out verdicts to students who cheated on tests, were insubordinate in class or disobeyed rules in the school’s disciplinary handbook.

Here’s how it works:

* Once a week, a group of selected Teen Court students hear a variety of cases where students have broken the rules. Many of the cases involve minor offenses, such as cheating, horseplay and insubordination.

* After Teen Court, students are assigned to their roles as an attorney, clerk or member of the jury. Newton Police School Resource Officer Michael Cline, the court’s bailiff, opens the court session.

* Cline explains the defendant’s charges, and then the student on trial gives his or her account of what happened. Student attorneys then question the defendant about what happened and make a preliminary ruling of what the defendant’s punishment should be.

* A jury deliberates, makes its ruling and then all of the Teen Court participants leave the room. NCMS Principal Patrick Nelson, the court’s “judge,” then talks with the defendant and makes the final ruling.

* Using the student handbook as the “law,” most punishments involve students doing things like cleaning up the cafeteria, sitting on a jury, serving detention, writing apology letters and being on probation.

Cline started the Teen Court program last year for students who wanted to make a difference and, so far, the mock court appears to work.

About 98 percent of the students who appear in Teen Court are one-time offenders who heed their peers’ comments.

“The kids really enjoy it because they feel like they're helping the school,” Cline said. “If kids hear from other kids that they're doing wrong, they take it seriously.”

The students who take part in the court are also seeing a difference.

“We’ve only had a couple of people that have been here two, three or four times,” said Chasey Davis, an eight-grade student who was a lead prosecutor recently. “But most of them come in, go, and we never hear from them again.”

Hailey Cline, officer Cline’s daughter and a sixth-grade member of the jury, agrees.

“People who come through here most of the time don’t come back and end up being your friend,” she said.

All the happenings in Teen Court are confidential, and students are required to sign a confidentiality agreement before court starts. Cline said no one has spoken a word so far.  

“They don't talk about it in the hallways. They don't talk about it on Facebook,” he said.