Some Vallejo, Calif., high school students are racking up a steady stream of court appearances, but in this case they are not getting into trouble—they’re acting as court officials who determine consequences for their peers.
In October, Jesse Bethel High School constructed a new courtroom that’s not just for show. It’s part of an effort called the Youth Justice Program, which provides opportunities for students at the school’s Law and Justice Academy to become involved with the high school’s justice process.
Now participating students can take their place behind a judge’s bench, on a witness stand or in a replica jury box as they seek collaborative justice solutions that don’t involve suspension for their peers who have committed offenses like vandalism or fighting on campus.
At Jesse Bethel, the Law and Justice Academy provides curriculum and learning opportunities for youth interested in pursuing a law-related profession in the future. As part of the high school’s “wall-to-wall academy” approach, all 1,700 students in the school are placed in one of five different academies, which also include biomed, green, international finance and multimedia studies.
The youth court is only the latest program in a series of initiatives that Vallejo City Unified School District Superintendent Ramona Bishop hopes can shift the arc of school discipline away from harsh punitive measures and toward positive experiences that support student achievement.
Before she came aboard, Jesse Bethel had a graduation rate of 68.7 percent, well below the state average of 85 percent. But now, since implementing changes to the school climate, that number is up to 81 percent, according to a school administrator.
Since starting four years ago, Bishop has implemented an approach called Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports across all the schools in the district. All teachers in the district have received training on how to recognize the signs of trauma in children, and the past three years have seen many schools in the district roll out restorative justice circles, a process that helps offenderse mediate differences with their victims and make amends while working to avoid punitive results.
Bishop thinks that these efforts have made a difference in the school climate at Jesse Bethel and other schools in the district.
According to data provided by the superintendent’s office, suspensions in the district have decreased by 35.3 percent in the past four years. During the same time, expulsions have dropped to a total of 31 from 49.
The new practices stem from Bishop’s belief that even one suspension can have dramatic consequences for youth and especially for youth of color.
“If you believe the first suspension leads to the pipeline to prison, what are we doing?” Bishop said. “A lot of dropouts start with that first suspension.”
In 2013, Bishop was inspired by presentations she heard at a summit for California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye’s Keeping Kids in School and Out of Court initiative. There, Bishop heard about the ways in which other school districts were using youth courts to steer non-violent offenders away from suspensions while also providing opportunities for youth leadership and development.
The resulting youth court created the opportunity for Law and Justice Academy students to lead restorative justice circles. Today, when a discipline issue arises, school administrators will refer it to either the court or to the restorative justice circles. Behavioral and relationship issues usually end up within the circles, while the court is more likely to handle vandalism cases where students have admitted guilt.
At the Law and Justice Academy, students have also been able to connect to judges, attorneys, police officers and other professionals who can provide guidance and an awareness of career possibilities in the field.
One professional who has taken a leading role in helping out is Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson, who has a special interest in Vallejo.
A former foster youth, Thompson grew up and graduated from high school in Vallejo, and is keenly aware of the challenges faced by youth in Vallejo, particularly for those who don’t have supportive adults in their lives.
She’s played her part by providing students with professional opportunities like bringing 30 students from the academy to visit a crime lab in Alameda County. Additionally, she has helped the students dress for success. After learning that many young men at the school did not own a tie, she and other mentors organized an event that provided a tie or an eternity scarf to young men and women in the program, as well as instruction about how to wear them.
“This is a great opportunity to pay it forward,” Thompson said.
In Vallejo, many students are struggling to overcome trauma that often interferes with their learning, Jesse Bethel Principal Linda Kingston said. Community violence is a continuing issue, although many students are also struggling with drugs, family separation and life in the foster care system.
“I don’t know if I can tell you that we have more than a handful of students who haven’t been touched by something,” Kingston said.
Students who end up in restorative justice circles or youth court are often acting out because of exposure to trauma, according to Kingston. Students who serve in the Youth Justice Program like Angelyna Yim-Can aim to dig deeper when they dole out justice to students who have committed an offense.
“We don’t always just look at the problem that we were given when we start—we try to go further, ask why, and see if they have any other problems that are causing it even if it’s problem from outside of school,” said Yim-Can, a junior at Jesse Bethel. “We want to make sure their personal life and school life are both O.K.”
Principal Kingston says that students involved in the Youth Justice Program have gotten good at digging deeper with students who are in trouble and then finding a way to match students with appropriate consequences and services, if necessary.
“They understand the culture of our students and our school,” she said. “We don’t have a standard set of consequences, like picking up trash or community services. We really try to come up with consequences that matter in our community. So students might say that the youth should sit down with a counselor from our Kaiser network, or they might decide that the student should be required to give their time for tutoring or go to tutoring themselves if they’re struggling with their schoolwork.”
Thanks to a 2013 grant from Kaiser Permanente, the school now has resources to screen for and treat trauma. There’s a Kaiser clinic on campus available to all students, plus a special resident who helps with trauma-specific cases.
Now that a permanent youth court has been installed on campus, the law academy students are eager to continue the work they’ve practiced as restorative justice mediators.
“When I’m in there now, I take it more seriously than I would if it was just desks in a circle,” said law academy junior Daniel Killingsworth. “Now it feels like it’s ours.”
Killingsworth says that he has special insight into many of the students he comes into contact with as part of restorative justice circles or in the court. He hopes that the court will provide a lifeline for future students who are in danger of dropping out of school.
“When I was younger, I always used to get suspended,” Killingsworth said. “It really took a time when I had to sit down and think about it to make me change. But some people need mentors and folks to look up to [in order] to make that change.
“When we’re in court and especially with us being the first class to do the youth court, I feel like students do look up to us and realize that we’re here to help them.”
This story is part of a series funded by The Stuart Foundation on behalf of the California Chief Justice’s Keeping Kids in School and Out of Court Initiative.