Manual High School is exploring peer juries as a way to keep youth out of juvenile detention centers.
Set up by Illinois Models for Change and the Children's Home Association of Illinois, peer juries use the philosophy of restorative justice as the cornerstone for the program. “[The restorative justice philosophy] guides how we respond to misbehavior, conflict and crime,” explains Program Coordinator Lori Brown. “It says that everyone affected should come together and discuss the situation and how to move forward.”
Prior to the introduction of peer juries at Manual, police were often called to the school for minor infractions. This approach initiates the teens into the juvenile justice system, an approach that is neither cheap nor effective at improving behavior. Now, calling police is a last resort.
Before the initiative came together, the Children’s Home had been researching the efficacy of the juvenile justice system in Peoria. After looking at the large numbers of youth detained and arrested at school, Brown says, “Our question was: Should these kids really be detained? They are leaving the detention center so quickly…it just seemed like if you are going to be in and out of the revolving door, why not try something
Peer juries entered the scene during a quarterly meeting of the Peoria County Juvenile Justice Council, after a high school in Chicago sent a video demonstrating its positive experience with them. Brown passed the video on to a number of Peoria-area high schools and received word back from Manual’s principal, Dr. Sharon Kherat. Working with Carl Cannon’s Elite program, 12 volunteers were selected to serve as jury members. After two eight-hour days of training about the restorative justice process, decision making and leadership, the volunteers were equipped for duty.
Brown explains that the process begins with the dean of students, who gives the jury only those cases that deal with pre-identified behaviors deemed appropriate for the students to handle. All individuals impacted by the offense are called in to participate, with the goal of sparking rehabilitation by working together as a group. The jury members explain the reason behind the student’s referral and ask questions that get at the heart of why the student acted out, how he or she felt at the time, and what other events may be happening in the student’s life.
“A lot of the time, [the peer jury] has found that when there is a bump in the hallway, it is about more than the bump in the hallway,” says Brown, adding that a peer jury has more time to really dig deep into the issues and find the root of the problem. The jury has uncovered students who are grappling with the death of family members, single-handedly raising young siblings and working third-shift jobs to make ends meet.
The benefits of peer juries are noticeable in the hallways, Brown proudly states. Students brought before peer juries tend to become more active in the school and not commit the same offense a second time. “It’s really about changing people’s lives, not just about school discipline, but really making an impact with our kids and their lives. That really is our ultimate goal.”
Unfortunately, funding from the startup grant is ending, and the program’s future at Manual is in doubt. To learn how you can support the peer juries and other restorative justice work in Peoria through the Children's Home, visit chail.org. iBi
Models for Change is a national initiative funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. It collaborates with selected states to advance juvenile justice reforms that hold young people accountable for their actions, provide for their rehabilitation, protect them from harm, increase their life chances, and manage the risk they pose to themselves and to public safety.
Illinois is one of four participating states. Three issues are being targeted: “right-sizing” the juvenile court’s jurisdiction; expanding community-based alternatives to the confinement and formal processing of juveniles; and reducing disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system. Visit modelsforchange.net for more information.