The Winston-Salem YWCA's Teen Court takes place in a real courtroom — the Forsyth County Hall of Justice.
There are prosecutors, defense attorneys, bailiffs, jurors, and a judge with a robe and all. But they're all students either from Wake Forest University School of Law or, as of this year, local, middle, and high schools.
The people on trial are students too, referred by school resource officers or teachers for a minor offense. Instead of going into the justice system, the students face a jury of their peers. They get a constructive sentence, usually consisting of a letter of apology, life skills classes, and community service. And they don't leave with a record.
Marilyn Odom is the vice president of youth services for the YWCA of Winston-Salem. She says that 90% of students who go through Teen Court do not have repeat offenses within 12 months.
“They see how this program has stepped in and prevented them from going through the more serious aspect where they would actually have a juvenile record,” she said. “And having a juvenile record can prevent them from certain things they want to do, such as sometimes college, sometimes the military.”
This court process leaves them with a clean slate and potentially, new interests.
Odom says one teen who went through trial ended up becoming an attorney and returning as a volunteer. Another ended up getting hired at the library for which they did community service.
The teenagers also learn from the courses the jury determines they should take, like anger management and decision-making.
Nikki Fynn, the new program manager for Teen Court, says she hopes to address the source of the behavioral problems in those classes.
“I'll be able to calibrate what their needs are and make sure that the life skills classes are really concentrated in what they need, rather than just doing a little checklist,” Fynn said. “I'm really looking at getting into what are the root causes instead of the symptoms.”
She says all of these elements help to prevent the participants from future offenses as the students build various skills and learn to be more resilient in the face of adversity.
The volunteers who participate in the trial also stand to benefit from the program by learning about law and the different roles in the courtroom. Fynn said they are looking to get more students involved.
“They can serve as role models for the other teenagers going through the program which has a very big impact peer-education-wise because sometimes students don't want to listen to adults, but they'll sit up straight more when their peers are involved,” she said.
The program begins again this month with the start of the school year. The first court date will be on Aug. 30.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story used the word bailors instead of bailiffs. This story has been updated to clarify.
Amy Diaz covers education for WFDD in partnership with Report For America. You can follow her on Twitter at @amydiaze.