Student Courts and Meaningful Student Involvement

Students deliberate on important issues in a Seattle high school.
Student and adults deliberate together on important issues in a Seattle high school.

Student courts are one approach to engaging students as partners in school discipline. Student courts can happen in elementary, middle, and high school, and when they operate outside schools, they are youth courts. Most often, they provide conflict resolution and interpretation of student bylaws and constitutions. When infused with classroom learning goals and provided equitable opportunities for decision-making as adults, student courts can reflect Meaningful Student Involvement at the highest levels.

What They Do

Elementary, middle and high schools are using student courts as a way to engage students as partners in safe and supportive learning environments. They are also using student courts to teach students about justice and court issues, and to provide an alternative to other forms of punishment for students who disobey rules in order to defeat the school-to-prison pipeline and engage disengaged students.

How They Happen

The first step to creating a student court is to understand that these bodies are basically juries that are made of students alone. Whether happening on the classroom, building, district or state level, student courts should consider these five issues:

  1. Composition – Who will be on the court? How many students will be allowed? How will they be selected? How will they be trained? How long can they be members of the court?
  2. Jurisdiction – What types of offenses will the court rule on? How do student confidentiality laws and overall student safety affect the court?
  3. Preparation – How will students on the court will be trained to be effective and impartial jurors? How will adults learn about student courts?
  4. Operation – When, where and how will student court hearings be conducted? Who will evaluate student success? How will students be acknowledged for participating?
  5. Partnerships – How will student/adult partnerships be evident throughout the proceedings? Who will decide which cases the court hears? Who holds ultimate veto power over the court?

 

As more schools and districts realize the educational potential of student courts for both the students serving on them and those that go before them, they are becoming a popular way to engage students in school decision-making. Like other forms of student government, student court promotes student voice by engaging students as responsible, equitable partners in affecting and shaping schools.

What It Looks Like

Students in Marin County, California, have been partners in youth courts for more than a decade. Committed to eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline, these students learn to use restorative justice practices that keep students in schools and out of the juvenile justice system. With a non-adversarial, student-to-student philosophy at its core, Marin County youth courts have diverted more than 900 students from the juvenile justice system. Their completion rate is 95%, with only 8% recidivism, startling naysayers who insist youth courts are “soft on crime”.

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