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DHS peer court offers a choice

by Merrie Leininger

Douglas High School students who get fights or break school rules now have the choice to face the music before adults or a panel of their peers.

Peer court is a group of paid and volunteer high school students who received a grant to create an alternative method of changing the behavior of students who fight, bully and intimidate other students.

“They will hear cases of first- time offenders who have already pleaded guilty or it has already been established they are guilty. The peer court will get a briefing on the case as we know it. If they want more information, the repeat offender team will do that for them,” Principal Bev Jeans said.

The repeat offender team is made up of three officers who are in charge of communicating with the child’s family and mediating between continuing problems.

The Community Action Team, started by the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, conceived the idea and Sgt. Stan Lamb wrote the grant application. The grant was received from the office of Community-Oriented Policing in the Department of Justice.

About 10 student volunteers and 10 paid students now sit on the board, which is waiting to take it’s first case.

April Rodarte, 16, a junior, said the court will have more of an effect on students than if they go to juvenile court or are punished by school administration.

“When their peers are judging them it will be more influential. It will make them evaluate what they did,” she said.

Tanika Caldera, 16, a junior, said she thinks students may choose to go before peer court because they think they will get off easier.

“They probably will think it’s just easier because we’re all the same age and it’s not adults looking down on kids,” she said.

However, DHS counselor Michael Caughlan said he believes peer court will have a positive effect on students.

“They don’t care so much about what adults think. They just consider it another adult lecturing them and get turned off. I’ve seen if you really want to effect change in this age group, you need to use peer pressure,” Caughlan said. “If the students define the campus, if they set the standards that violence will be unacceptable, they’ll hopefully influence their peers.”

The students have received mediation and counseling training. Junior Andrea Derobertis, 17, said she has been involved in peer counseling for years. She said her sister is involved on a similar panel at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash.

“I thought it was a really neat idea. I think it will work well here. It will be more of a one-on-one thing,” she said. “I think it’ll slow down school violence, but not completely stop it.”

Katy Theumer, 17, a junior who sits on the peer court, said the experience in itself will be valuable for her because she wants to be an international lawyer.

“Plus, I really want to be involved in the community. I want to do anything I can. I’m open-minded and I think I’d be a good person,” she said.

The grant provides for one year of peer court and the results will be measured through a survey of 1,400 members of the student body. A survey was recently done to provide comparison.

The survey is statistically valid, thanks to Martha Mathew’s statistics class, which helped peer court members prepare the questions and compile the results.

A private company, Turning Point, associated with the University of Nevada, Reno, is analyzing the results.