First year of Peer Court adjourns

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By Staff Brunswick Beacon

SHALLOTTE—Peer Court is now adjourned—but only for the summer.

Shallotte Middle School just finished its first year hosting a Peer Court program, an after-school court hearing where student offenders are prosecuted and defended by their peers.

Ardith Shaw, Peer Court coordinator, said the program provides students an alternative to Juvenile Court in the hopes of reducing the out of school suspension rate. Shaw said more than 800 days were lost last year due to such suspensions.

A local judge and community volunteers help run the program, which was funded in part by Juvenile Crime Prevention Council and in part from a Communities in Schools grant the school received earlier this year. South Brunswick and Shallotte Rotary Clubs also contributed to the program.

Shallotte Middle is the first in the state to have a Peer Court program.

During its first year in operation, there were nine Peer Court sessions, and 26 students were sentenced. Of those, 64 percent have completed their sentence and 64 percent have not re-offended. Ardith Shaw, Peer Court coordinator, said those percentages should rise once students sentenced in April complete their sentences.

Sentences have required students to write essays and letters of apology, restricted attendance from school functions, attend counseling sessions, attend substance abuse counseling, participate in Saturday School and maintain satisfactory academic performance.

Shaw said while she wants the number of non-repeat offenders to be higher, she is pleased with the results of the first-year program.

“Once the kids here at the school realize the importance of Peer Court, they take it seriously,” she said.

Changes will be made to the program next year, which Shaw believes will make a difference. Shaw hopes to be able to hire the tutor brought in to specifically work with student offenders full-time. Counseling was added towards the end of the first year, and Shaw said it will now be offered from the beginning.

“I can’t ask a child to change if I don’t provide the right kind of resources,” she said.

Shaw plans on offering the services during the summer months, as student offenders have requested continual treatment.

Teachers throughout SMS have noticed Peer Court’s influence on their students. According to a survey, 60 percent of teachers noted change in their classrooms.

“As far as I’ve heard, the program has definitely been beneficial,” Shaw said.

Student volunteers play a vital role in the program. Acting as prosecuting and defense attorneys, bailiffs and jury members, students have many ways to be involved in the program. More than 900 volunteer hours were recorded this year.

Seventh-grader Tyler Hicks said he likes playing a prosecuting attorney the best.

“I like trying to help people out and help them make the right choices,” he said.

Hicks said he is considering becoming a lawyer or a policeman due to his involvement in Peer Court.

“They bring justice to the court,” he said.

Eighth-grader Jacob Hill said playing a defense attorney is the hardest job because there are many different ways to present a case.

“You don’t want to get [the student offender] into a lot of trouble, but you got to do what you got to do,” he said. “It’s because of their own choices they’re in Peer Court. Sometimes the harsher the punishment, the better choices they’ll make.”

District Judge Marion Warren volunteered as the Peer Court judge throughout the year and said he was impressed with the level of maturity the student volunteers displayed.

“It was refreshing to see a group of young people who were more attentive and conducted themselves in a manner more appropriately than the adults who were present to handle their cases,” he said.

“Their insight into the judicial process was demonstrated in the manner in which they addressed the court.”

Peer Court will operate through a grant for the next year, but Shaw is convinced the program needs to be a permanent fixture not only at SMS but also at every middle school in the county.

“The students have exceeded my expectations,” Shaw said. “I’ve worked with some really good kids this year on both sides of the table.”