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Sandy Journal

Canyons Peer Court starts its second year; encourages students to make amends, find connections

Nov 18, 2021 02:41PM ● By Julie Slama

Canyons Board of Education President Nancy Tingey swears in 18 students to take part of Canyons Peer Court in its second year. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Approximately one year ago, Brighton High junior Nora Dominguez stood alongside her peers taking the same oath she did this year.  

It’s one that she doesn’t take lightly. 

Dominguez and 17 others—nine of who are returning members—pledged to uphold the duties of peer court, a model of restorative justice that was introduced to the Canyons School District communities last year.

The Canyons Peer Court functions much like any court of law except with peer courts, students are trained to hear cases after students admit their guilt to their school administrators, and cases center around violations of school or district policy, such as fighting, bullying, vaping, or misuse of technology. The appearances and outcomes are confidential and the focus is on helping their peers make better decisions.

“I’m excited for this year because I really enjoyed being on peer court last year,” she said. “It was a huge learning opportunity for me and a chance to help my community, school and school district. The families and students really trusted us, and we saw how the peer court could really make a positive difference for them.”

As a peer court, high school students rotate in roles of one of three judges, who sit before the families, or they’re one of three bailiffs, who escort the families into the court and read the oath. Other peer court students sit quietly in the back of the room, learning and observing, and once families leave on a break, take part in the deliberation of the deposition to determine the students’ recourse for the next four weeks. They are guided by the program’s coordinator, Charisse Hilton.

While Dominguez maintains the oath of confidentiality, she said that often the way she and her fellow student-judges help families is for the students and their parents or guardians to share about themselves.

“Sometimes our dispositions may be to improve attendance or take classes at the Canyons family learning centers or have them explore their interests as it may lead to possible future careers. We could encourage them to join clubs and make friends, talk to people in the school community or provide service to their school,” she said. 

Hilton said that the judges’ scripts have been tweaked from last year’s script to be more open-ended.

“We want the student to be able to tell their story, so more of a ‘please, tell us why you’re here,’ which allows the student to speak freely,” she said, which helps in determining a disposition that will help the student.

Dominguez and other peer court members undergo 35 hours of training before they begin hearing cases following the guidelines of the National Association of Youth Courts. Before a student appears in court, the peer court judges will recuse themselves if they know the student or if they attend the same school.

Hilton said the integrity of the peer court is “sincere and their desire to help is real. They’re really thoughtful and are critical thinkers who really try to weigh out what is going to be best for the students. We want them to help them find a way to connect with their school.”

Peer court is voluntary, which the student and parents agree to, as an alternative to suspension, which takes students away from school and may lead to becoming further behind in their schoolwork, she added.

“Our goal is to help the kids change their behavior. We’re here to support them, help them make better decisions, help them connect and create some relationships. This alternative has students be engaged in learning how to change their behavior and it’s an approach where the school community is being supportive to the family and providing resources,” Hilton said, adding that administrators and school resource officers have been trained and are supporting this alternative.

She said that last year 41 students successfully completed their dispositions and families can reach back to her if they need for additional help or resources. 

“When they successfully met their dispositions, we celebrate and graduate them from peer court. We cheer and clap and tell them good job,” she said.

Joining Hilton is Brighton teacher Shan Apolonio, who volunteers with the peer court members, who regularly hold court two days per month. To ensure students are on track completely their disposition, the peer court-appointed mentor, Suzanne Ren, checks in with students regularly.

Hilton said that another positive aspect of the program is that the peer court members learn about civics, community engagement, explore career opportunities, engage with the public, speak professionally and learn how to remain calm under pressure. 

“These kids are responsible and have their hearts in the right spot. They sincerely want to help,” Hilton said. “Youth courts give students a voice, experience with leadership, and a chance to serve their community. I have a passion to help students become leaders and to help make our community better.”