Teens lay down the law


It's 3:15 p.m., and the jurors are tired and irritable. One of them is whining that she needs a snack. Another is trying to force his opinion on everyone else.

They're arguing loudly, when in walks Baltimore County police Officer Michael Snyder with a warning. "Two minutes, guys," he shouts.

Finally, the group makes a decision and files out of a chemistry classroom and into the school library.

There sits the defendant, a shy girl who skipped school so she could visit the mall.

It's 3:25 p.m., and Dundalk High School's Student Court -- the only one of its kind in Maryland -- issues its latest ruling. The defendant will be forced to do three hours of school cleanup and serve as a student juror next month.

Jurors, most of them juniors and seniors with an interest in the criminal justice system, have mowed through another docket of teen-age rule-breakers. As they prepare to depart for home, their teachers, Carol Reynolds and James Haupt, do some debriefing. "You did a great job," said Reynolds.

Students, who were divided into two juries, were surprised to hear that they'd meted out similar sanctions in separate truancy cases.

It proved that they were being fair, said Reynolds.

Since Dundalk's monthly Student Court convened in October, minor offenses by students have decreased, said Principal Kim Stephanic. "It's one of the things [students] hope to avoid," she said. "We hope they make better decisions so they won't end up there."

Recently, Dundalk's Student Court won national attention when Reynolds and Haupt presented their program at the National Dropout Prevention Convention in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

As a result, a law enforcement official from Anchorage, Alaska, has contacted Snyder for advice on how to set up a similar peer mediation system there.

One reason schools nationwide are turning to student courts such as Dundalk's is that they provide an alternative to suspensions, said Snyder.

"If kids are out of school, they are more likely to do drugs and commit crimes," he said. "But if we can keep them in school, we can keep our eyes on them and make sure they do the right thing."

Similar teen courts exist in Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Talbot counties, officials said, but those courts rely on volunteer district and circuit court judges to oversee hearings.

Snyder, who shares responsibilities for Dundalk's Student Court with Reynolds and Haupt, said student defendants take the court proceedings seriously and are often embarrassed to admit their wrongs in front of their peers. Defendants must admit guilt before the hearing. The jury asks questions about the misdeeds to determine appropriate punishment.

In most cases, students must perform a service at the school -- cleaning up a classroom or hallway. Sometimes, they must write an essay or an apology. Some of them return as jurors to see how it feels to be on the other side of school law.

After a hearing yesterday, Nikisha Massey, 18, said she felt good about the Student Court process. Massey forged a note from home so that she could get out of school early. She knows she did wrong, she said, but she needed to work and her legal guardian lives in Prince George's County.

When the jury said she'd have to do two hours of school service, Massey seemed relieved. "It could have been worse," she said. She could have been suspended, an action that could have permanently marred her school record.

Jurors don't balk at their task, though they know they could meet up with a student defendant again.

"I do what I have to do, and they can either hate me or love me," said Frank Wilcox, 17, the court clerk yesterday. "They're the ones who got themselves here."

Despite what adults might think, student jurors don't go easy on their peers, said Snyder. At yesterday's session, jurors assigned four girls a total of 10 school service hours and asked all but one of them to return to be jurors.

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