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Peer court at DHS

by Merrie Leininger

In an effort to do the one thing that seems to be lacking in the days of Columbine, Douglas High School students are listening to other students’ problems.

Peer Court started hearing cases of bullying, intimidation and fighting this year. The court was made possible by a federal grant awarded to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office last year and provides for the salaries of 10 peer jurors and Deputy Greg Shields, who is a liaison between the students and the sheriff’s office. It also pays for the salaries of the School Safety Intervention Team, a group of deputies that follow up on cases. In addition, 10 students have volunteered their time to the court.

Shields’ love of the program and the kids that run it is evident when he talks about peer court.

“They have become friends. They all ask me questions outside of peer court about other things,” he said. “I also help them manage it and to keep things smooth. I consider myself their representative.”

Shields said having a police presence in the school is a positive experience for him and the students.

“The department and the kids have been bonding. It’s the best thing I’ve done in 16 years. The kids come up and talk to me all the time. They just want some attention and some respect,” Shields said.

And that is what peer court gives them. The group allows both offenders and victims to tell their side of the story.

“And then they can ask any questions. They ask questions that adults don’t know to ask. They get the background and it’s emotional. They get to spill their guts out,” he said. “Anytime there is further discussion rather than just punishment during this type of mediation, that’s the best thing that can happen. Then, if they are referred to the Aspen Program or anger control counseling, they will talk to a real professional who will have more time to see if there is potential for more serious problems.”

Jury. Student jurors said they think students like to come to the peer court not because they are being judged by their peers, but because they are being listened to by their peers.

Lauren Hayes, an 11th grader at DHS, is a paid employee of the peer court.

“I think it’s helpful to students. It’s different to come in and stand up before your peers and talk about the bad things you did. It makes you think about it more than if you’re talking to adults,” Lauren said.

Sophomore volunteer Blaine Spires said the group may not stop all student violence, but it does help students.

“I think it is so much better than just suspending someone. They know we know what they are going through,” he said.

On the other hand, Spires said empathizing too much can be difficult when a friend is before the court.

“If I know somebody, I don’t want to be as hard on them, because they are a friend, but I know I have to be fair to everybody,” he said.

Senior Jamie Matthews, a paid employee, said she thinks she is helping the school become a nicer place. She said they hear not only cases involving fights, but also profanity in the classroom, and rude comments to other students or teachers.

“In a way, it is more effective for people not just to get punished, but to get a second chance,” she said.

Judge. Student coordinator Katy Theumer acts as judge to the rest of the students’ jury. She and Shields decide when things are out of control during the twice-weekly hearings. If the jury cannot democratically decide on a fair consequence for the offender, the pair decides. Otherwise, the group votes. They must hear the cases during their lunch period, which lasts 45 minutes.

Now in their second month of hearing cases, the group is still trying to work out the bugs. Friday and Monday, the group decided to crack down on students who were not taking the hearings seriously enough to even show up.

Jurors suggested if students didn’t have enough respect for the court’s time to come when scheduled, they would have to face what ever punishment the administration had for them. On Monday, they refused to hear a bullying case when the offender did not show up.

In a case where a student had been suspended for two days and then sent to peer court after cussing loudly in class, the group was divided over whether the consequences they gave – an apology letter to the teacher and anger management classes – were too harsh.

Principal Bev Jeans, who had stopped by, had some advice.

“You have to remember the whole purpose is to decrease bullying and intimidation and to prevent having more victims in the future. I think if you remember that, it should be easy to decide if you should be more or less severe,” she said.

Part of the requirements of the grant is the group does this sort of self-examination now. They will be conducting interviews with the people who came before them to determine what works and what doesn’t, said DHS counselor and peer court advisor Mike Caughlan.

Shields, however, insisted the peer court can not stop all student violence.

“This is not a complete cure. I hope people realize in order to be a success, we have to have the support of the school and parents. It’s time for parents to do their part,”he said.