Senn High peer jury. Credit: File photo by Jason Reblando

When Luis Gonzalez was a freshman at Senn High, he frequently cut classes to play videos at a friend’s house. “It was a ditching game,” Luis says of his truancy.

His conduct finally landed him in the discipline office, where he faced possible suspension from school. But he got a reprieve from the peer jury, a school program that offers an alternative to school suspension and expulsion.

Before the peer jury session, Luis says he was bored and uninterested in school and got failing grades. But talking to the jurors—fellow Senn students—helped put his self-described lack of direction and motivation into perspective.

The experience was a turning point. “Seeing other students doing good made me want to do good,” he says. “I started to really think about where I’m going in life.” Now a senior, Luis is conscientious and focused—he has perfect attendance, a 3.5 GPA, and a sense of purpose. He says the peer jury gave him the enthusiasm to funnel his competitive streak into academics.

Today, he sits on the opposite side of the table—as a peer juror who dispenses advice to wayward peers like “Daniel,” who has racked up 24 first-period absences as a junior.

“We’re not here to judge or punish,” Luis tells Daniel during a peer jury proceeding. “We’re here to help you take responsibility for your actions and avoid [trouble] from happening in the future.”

In 1996, Senn launched the city’s first public school peer jury program where student jurors review minor infractions of their peers, and agree on non-punitive sanctions other than suspension or expulsion. Two years ago, the Chicago Public Schools adopted the model, which currently operates in 25 high schools.

The initiative was born out of a partnership with Alternatives Inc., a nonprofit youth agency located in the Uptown neighborhood that runs school and community-based activities at Senn.

“These were students that were into school, but some had challenges in certain areas,” says Pat Zamora of Alternatives Inc. Students who were suspended usually had poor attendance records and grades and “suspension kept them out of class and isolated them from the school, putting them further behind,” she explains.

The CPS goal is to have alternative discipline solutions in all of its high schools. The Board of Education even rewrote its Uniform Discipline Code in 2001 to include peer jury as an alternative to suspension and expulsion for minor infractions such as absenteeism and truancy, not complying with school uniform rules and unauthorized use of cell phones and pagers.

Peer juries are also known as youth courts, and there are nearly 900 such programs nationwide, according to the National Youth Court Center in Lexington, Ky. More than 50 percent of the programs operate in conjunction with the justice system, while 5 percent, including the CPS model, are school based.

The CPS model is based on the principles of Balanced and Restorative Justice (BAJR), a philosophy that justice is best served when it focuses on action and accountability rather than punishment. With peer jury, students learn from their mistakes by listening to peers, victims and others who were impacted by their inappropriate behavior.

“It’s not dissimilar to how we raise our children and families,” explains Dee Bell, project administrator of the Community Justice Initiative at Florida Atlantic University in Ft. Lauderdale. “One sibling hurts another, you bring the two together, talk about who was harmed and how, who’s accountable and how to prevent another occurrence. [Then] you move forward together.” Bell heads the Balanced and Restorative Justice Project, a decade-old federal initiative to implement BAJR in juvenile justice programs across the country.

Court systems support the BAJR model. Sophia Hall, administrative presiding judge for the Juvenile Justice and Child Protection Resource Section of the Circuit Court of Cook County in Chicago, says peer juries can prevent youth from entering the juvenile justice system.

“When youth act out it usually starts in the schools before it starts in the streets,” says Hall, who sits on a citywide committee that supports the CPS program. “Peer jury can be a way for youth to be diverted long before they come to the court’s attention.”

As well as fostering a new attitude toward discipline, peer jury has made a dent in suspensions at Senn. Before the program started, 93 percent of disciplinary referrals resulted in suspensions; today, only 9 percent go to suspension, according to Alternatives Inc. Last year, 46 students escaped suspension through peer jury, and 12 served as jurors.

Jury of peers

Luis participates in peer jury proceedings twice a week after school and may hear up to six cases each week. Sessions last about three hours. Although juries are generally comprised of six students, today Luis is joined by two others, seniors Marcos Erazo and Krystal Johnson. An adult coordinator supervises jurors, but doesn’t participate in the proceedings.

During Daniel’s hearing, Luis and the other jurors warn that he risks getting kicked out of school for class cutting. To uncover what’s behind his truancy, the jurors probe Daniel for details about his grades, his home life and his future aspirations.

Daniel recounts a recent troubling experience when he was chased to school by young men he assumed were gangbangers. As the facilitator for this session (jurors alternate between sessions), Luis listens intently, then suggests that Daniel take a new route to school. Luis also writes a reminder note to himself to talk to Senn officials about school safety. As a panel, the jurors discuss Daniel’s difficulty waking up in the morning and other factors that may be contributing to his failing grades. Daniel simply says he “doesn’t wake up in time” to get to school and he concedes that he is not completing schoolwork because, in some cases, he doesn’t understand the material.

Jurors spend 15 minutes reviewing facts and background, then they collaborate with Daniel on a final agreement. Daniel resolves to arrange for a wake-up call each morning, attend tutoring before school and, for motivation, participate in a morning basketball program. He signs a confidential, written document and vows to adhere to its terms. After Daniel leaves the room, the jurors confer before signing off on the pre-printed agreement they will submit to school administrators, who will monitor Daniel’s compliance.

Luis and other students attended a six-week training program developed by Alternatives Inc., where they learned to ask insightful questions, analyze the facts of an offender’s case and determine effective remedies. Topics included listening skills, the CPS disciplinary code and the importance of confidentiality.

Students must have at least a 2.0 GPA to participate—a CPS requirement for extracurricular activities—and may earn service-learning credits.

Luis says serving on the peer jury is a way of giving back. “Some students have actually come back and told me, ‘Thank you’ for helping open their eyes to the right thing to do,” he says. “It feels good to help people and let them know that they’re not alone.”

That’s why peer jury was the right alternative for Luis, who cut class, but had not become a chronic discipline problem, says Assistant Principal Joseph Ruiz. “He needed some type of program or service to help him with school work, attendance and just his focus in school,” Ruiz says. “He really got hooked into school and he’s just blossomed.”

As a motivated student, Luis has ditched his ditching friends and has raised his grades through tutoring. He also plays soccer and volleyball, and is a member of the Junior Honor Society and the city’s Gallery 37 arts program. Outside of school, Luis studies martial arts (he has a black belt in tae kwan do) and works part-time at a neighborhood movie theater.

The oldest of four siblings, Luis realizes the impact his negative behavior could have had on his younger brothers and sister, and prefers to set a good example. A younger brother in 8th-grade is already an honors student in math. “I really try to encourage him to listen and pay attention to his teachers,” Luis says. “I tell him, ‘Look, I didn’t pay attention and I got Ds and Fs and had to go to summer school.'”

Luis uses a similar personal approach with students who come before the peer jury. He shares his own experiences, but realizes it’s up to the offenders to change their behavior.

“If we don’t listen and do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll get left behind,” Luis says. “Just because I give you an apple doesn’t mean that you’ll take a bite.”

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