Halifax County Schools had its first face-to-face teen court last week.
The in-person session came as some of the COVID-19 restrictions were loosened, restrictions which had hampered the program.
Last Thursday the time finally arrived for volunteers to put their training and leadership skills to work.
The room was silent, except for nervous whispers between the defendant and his attorney.
Eyes were locked on the judge and court was called to order.
Teen court started with opening statements from the prosecutor and defense attorney.
The teenaged prosecutor and defense attorney are often students interested in law who volunteer their time to learn the judicial system.
The jury is also made up of teen volunteers. They hear evidence and they learn how to do public speaking and courtroom decorum.
The teen jury hands down the sanctions which can range anywhere from community service hours to writing letters of apology if a victim of crime.
Halifax County Schools allow its participants to work off their community service hours at Green Leaf Farms under the supervision of Residential Farm Manager Reginald Cotten.
Teen court volunteers are middle and high school scholars from all parts of the county, representing all races and socio-economic levels.
During deliberation, the jurors determine the facts of the case, discuss their personal conclusions, listen to other points of view, and reach a consensus.
They learn to work as a team since all judgments must be unanimous.
The volunteers are exposed to real-life events containing sensitive information. “They treat the defendants with respect and sincerely listen to what they have to say about their offense, their home life, and plans for the future. Teen court youth get a second chance,” Battle said.
The inaugural teen court participants consisted of the following students: Jasmine Goodwin and Zaniya Battle both served as attorneys; Serenity Barnes, SeMiyah Graham, and Keniah Smith served as jurors.
In partnership with the Halifax County Juvenile Crime and Prevention Council and the Halifax County Judicial System, attorney Zachary Blackwell presided as judge, Danielle Moore served as facilitator, and Teresa Boyd served as clerk of court.
Superintendent Eric Cunningham and board members Joyce Lashley and Claude Cooper supported this initiative as participants in the virtual audience.
The teen court program director is Tyrana B. Battle, assistant superintendent of Halifax County Schools.
“We all make mistakes, and teen court provides youth an opportunity to learn from their mistakes as they develop positive life skills,” Battle said. “Teen court is a key element of juvenile diversion, an intervention strategy that redirects youth away from formal processing in the juvenile justice system, while still holding them accountable for their actions.”
Battle said teen court accepts referrals of first-time offenders ages 11-18 who have admitted guilt to misdemeanor offenses such as simple affray, disorderly conduct, trespassing, shoplifting, cyberstalking, injury to personal property, communicating threats, larceny less than $1,000 and simple assault.
“Every participant in the program is treated the same regardless of their background, where they come from, or what they look like,” said Battle. “Teen court gives students an opportunity to avoid a long-standing juvenile delinquency record. It basically gives everyone a fresh start no matter who they are.”
Battle said all teen court supervising adults work hard to ensure volunteers set examples for their peers, helping them understand there are positive alternatives to the choices that have led them down their current path. “All involved are learning skills that they can apply now as well as take with them as these youth mature into contributing members of their communities.Teen court has proven to be a powerful and effective program.”
Cunningham said, “As we continue to extend opportunities to meet the needs of our students, we revisited the archives to bring back those things that worked well in the past. I continue to be very proud of our students and staff.”
Lashley, board chair, said, “It is awesome that this program is back in the county. I really like the expertise and knowledge of the students in their various roles. This program focuses on restorative practices and it gives students another opportunity to do the right thing.”
Cooper was impressed with the court proceedings. “Halifax County Schools continue to be better because we want to be and this is just another example of our efforts.”
Sessions in teen court are structured to resemble traditional district court as much as possible. Training sessions are held twice monthly during the school year, and courtroom trials are held every fourth Thursday of the month.
The location for teen court trials is the Halifax County Courts in Halifax.
Due to the pandemic, an alternate location schedule was implemented which consisted of a virtual setting, and face-to-face sessions at Halifax County Schools Central Office.