Authored by: Ricky Vigil, Magna Kearns Youth Court Coordinator
I am constantly amazed at how bright, how passionate and how dedicated the teenagers I work with are. Society at large thinks of teenagers as lazy, irresponsible and self-centered, and while all teenagers (and adults, for that matter) can possess those traits at times, it’s clear to me that all it takes is a single opportunity for a teen to break out of that stereotype. Magna Kearns Youth Court offers that opportunity to our teen panelists and to the youth referred to our program. In the last year, I have seen our teen panelists grow more confident, becoming more comfortable with the process of our hearings and learning to communicate better with the youth brought to court. It’s gratifying to see kids I’ve known for several years through our Afterschool programs, flourish into wonderful leaders.
For this school year, HB239 is going into effect. The bill’s basic provisions state that law enforcement can no longer be involved in low level offenses committed by youth in schools, and that school administrators must utilize alternative forms of discipline. This is great news for youth court programs, as it validates our existence and proves that the state’s legislature sees the value in restorative justice rather than punitive justice.
The S.J. Quinney School of Law at the University of Utah released a study earlier this year entitled “Misbehavior or Misdemeanor? A Report on Utah’s School to Prison Pipeline.” While the data shows that school discipline is down in general, the disparity in discipline between white students and minority students has been growing. With this in mind, Magna Kearns Youth Court has recruited over a dozen new panelists from Kearns High and Cyprus High, to help youth referred to our program connect to their community, take accountability for their actions and learn new skills.
Our panelists have distinct backgrounds, interests and personalities–we have students involved in drama, debate, soccer, choir–and it has been interesting to see how passionate and invested they are when it comes to school discipline. Actually, when Nubia Peña- from the Utah Coalition against Sexual Assault, and Kathy Abarca- from Racially Just Utah, spoke to our panelists about the recent report released by the Quinney School of Law, the kids were shocked by the statistics. Coming from low-income areas and racially diverse populations, our teen panelists realized that they don’t have to look far to know someone who is already part of the criminal justice system. I was impressed by our panelists’ maturity, engaging with our presenters, asking great questions and sharing their concerns with the current trends.
As it is easy to get weighed down by the grim aspects of the juvenile justice system, we try to bring positivism and fun into our kids’ lives. As part of our training, we have used some experiential learning techniques to emphasize team building and to connect them to the challenges at court, as well as the challenges that the youth brought before them are facing. We also partnered with the Magna Kennecott Senior Center, to give our panelists a chance to connect with their community, so that they get a chance to experience what some of the dispositions assigned to our referred youth are like. Although at first, it took a few minutes for our kids to open up to the opportunity to play bingo with the seniors, after a while they were all rocking multiple cards at a time, laughing and getting invested in their wins.
Throughout our sessions, our panelists have offered suggestions on new dispositions, asked how they could advocate for our program in their schools and even brought friends to later sessions so they could join our panel. I have a lot of confidence in our team this year, and I’m excited for them to begin mentoring kids in their own community and continuing to make a difference.