OGDEN — About 20 students in Ogden School District were sworn in as judges in the district’s youth court, which handles some cases of misbehavior by their peers that might otherwise be sent to juvenile court.
At the swearing-in ceremony, youth court judges took the same oath that juvenile court judges take, and administered by Judge Michelle Heward, a juvenile court judge.
The youth court judges heard short speeches from two of juvenile court judges, Judge Michelle Heward and Judge Jeffrey Noland, before they were sworn in.
Judge Michelle Heward said she sat on a panel recently with member of the Ogden district youth court and remembered a student saying that they did not realize how much other students were going through.
“(Students who commit offenses) are capable of doing well, but for a variety of reasons, they are not connected to their school,” Heward said, speaking of the youth she sees in juvenile court.
Heward said that she can order youth to attend school when they’re not attending, but this does not have the same influence as the student being restored back into the school community after an infraction and feeling like they are wanted there.
“You could literally change the life of a person,” Heward told the group.
In the past, when youth committed offenses, the focus was on punishment to keep them from reoffending, said Aspen Henderson, student advocacy services supervisor who is over the youth court at Ogden School District.
As participants in youth court, youth get the chance to restore the damage they caused. In turn, they get the chance to be restored to their community.
“What all the research is looking like is the minute we remove them from the community that they’re engaged in as a punishment, then they no longer want to be part of that ... community,” Henderson said.
Giving youth the chance to be restored brings them back into a supportive space, enhancing the chances they won’t repeat their offense.
Students join the court as judges have to maintain a certain standard of grades and behavior, but they apply to be on the court; they’re not selected. As a result, the court is representative of the students they judge. Some judges are even prior participants in the court, Henderson said.
“I was interested in going into social work when I was younger and I thought this would be ... the first step to give me the first look at it,” said Melany Mendoza, a senior in high school on the court. “I think it’s a great experience, but it’s kind of a lot to deal with ... I don’t I’m fit enough emotionally to go into something like that.”
Even though her experience on the court has steered her away from social work as a career, she’s continuing serving on the court for a second year.
“You ... get to see the starting point, and if they’re going down a bad trail, you get to put a stop to it before it develops into something bigger,” Mendoza said.
Court Henderson, a ninth grader on the court this year, says he has gained an appreciation of the impact that difficult circumstances can have on someone’s choices.
“I started to realize that people aren’t just born and they’re ... gonna commit crime,” Henderson said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s because something has gone wrong in their life.”
The youth court can handle a variety of “minor offenses,” from disrespect toward teachers and truancy to first-time drug offenses.
The court is comprised of judges in ninth through 12th grades. They can hear cases for students in high school down to elementary school.
“The purpose of a youth court is to provide an alternative to juvenile court for first-time minor offenders,” according to the Utah Youth Court Association website. “The youth court system follows the restorative model of justice, which emphasizes the beliefs of repairing harm done to victims as well as providing youth with the resources to make better decisions in the future.”
Youth and their parents referred to the court participate voluntarily, and youth must admit to having committed the offense in order to participate, according to the Utah Youth Court Diversion Act.
All youth courts must be certified by the Utah Youth Court Board in order to accept referrals from law enforcement, schools prosecuting attorneys or a juvenile court, according to the act.
The youth court in Ogden School District is one of 22 youth courts across the state, according to the Utah Youth Court Association website.
Most of the youth courts are affiliated with cities. The Ogden School District youth court is the only youth court listed as affiliated with a school district.
Other courts in Weber, Davis and Box Elder counties include the youth courts in Kaysville, Layton, Roy, Syracuse and South Box Elder. A Tri-City Youth Court covers Harrisville, North Ogden and Pleasant View City.