Bonnie is the manager of Teen Court, a peer-based juvenile diversion service with Northwest Youth Services in partnership with Whatcom County Superior Court.
High school students from across Whatcom County volunteer to participate as jurors, judges, clerks, bailiffs, and attorneys (referred to as advocates). Each participating high school has a Teacher Advisor who works closely with their team to recruit, train and prepare their students for the various Teen Court roles. A Student Advisory Board, made up of 2-3 leaders from each school, meets monthly to discuss important topics and make any changes.
How did you get involved with Teen Court?
I was transitioning out of being an elementary school teacher and looking for a meaningful path forward. When I saw the job posting I was intrigued because it was so restorative justice focused.
It started off as an eight-hour assistant position and then I ended up taking over from Cathy Beaty after she retired as Teen Court manager after 20+ years. I love my job.
What are some things that you think the community at large doesn't understand about Teen Court?
Teen Court relies on community support and youth volunteers. We work with real, actual cases of a youth whose been charged with an assault or a burglary or harassment, even things like threatening schools. But instead of having them go through the basic regular juvenile system, they are diverted into Teen Court. In Teen Court, we strive to apply the philosophy of restorative justice which focuses on repairing harm through accountability, healing, and community – not punishment. Restorative justice is whole person focused and sees the humanity in everyone involved.
Teen Court consists of a jury of peers who listen to the facts presented and who have a list of protentional consequences to assign a respondent. They say: Yes, this consequence is going to help repair something for that person or the people that were affected. They also consider how to rebuild trust, so the community can now trust that respondent.
When a young person comes to us, and they're labeled as an offender. But with Teen Court, the young people in our community who come and volunteer their time, and the teacher advisors who help support those students, they say: I believe in you. Yes, you made a mistake. But how can we repair this harm with you? And the goal is always to see the humanity in that person.
There are so many layers, but I don't think that people in general realize what young adults are capable of. Teen Court shows their seriousness, their thoughtfulness, their ability to make difficult decisions with empathy and the goal of restorative justice at the forefront. Who better to understand what it's like to be a young adult, than other young adults?
Why do you refer to youth facing charges as “respondents” rather than “offenders”?
We call them respondents because they are responding to the charge. They say they are willing to be held accountable for what they did. And if they're not willing to be held accountable, Teen Court isn't for them.
When a young person is charged, there's a history there that we want to investigate. What made them decide to make that choice? What are things moving forward that would help this young person make different choices? What outside forces are contributing to a respondent's situation? What are the respondent's strengths? What supports do they need? Are there resources that we can share with the respondent and their family? So, we are already trying to see this person not as an offender, but someone who can grow to make different decisions. When we see people in a better light, they respond to that.
What we're doing is working because, over the last 20+ years, 90-100% of people complete the consequences assigned to them. It matters how we talk about people, what we see in their future, what we think their capacity is. By believing that young people can make different decisions, we help them to get there too.
Can you tell me more about the students who volunteer to act as judges, advocates, bailiffs, jurors, and clerks? What kind of impact does Teen Court have on them?
We're planting a seed, and we never know what kind of impact that seed has. While the emphasis is on the respondent, we also never know the lives of those 100+ students who volunteer to lead Teen Court. Just because they're volunteering doesn't mean things are perfect for them. We never know who needs help, and who's coming to us that we can impact in a positive way. It's not just about the respondent; it’s the larger impact that we're having on young people throughout the community. It's about bigger conversations around restorative justice and social justice. Always, our goal in Teen Court is to create an inclusive space. One of the best compliments we've ever received from a volunteer is, "this is my best after school community."
What are some more specific impact examples?
Just this last year, we had a respondent who I believe was charged with Malicious Mischief lll. They went through Teen Court as a respondent, and successfully completed their Teen Court contract. And then this year, they showed up in Teen Court again, but this time as an advocate, and they had a totally different perspective. So, we saw someone go from being a respondent to being actively engaged in a volunteer role and advocating for their community. There's a personal connection to it that helps; for example, their teacher or me reaching out to that person saying, we really see this capacity in you. You have value outside of this thing that happened that’s not reflective of who you are.
Another story is about a respondent who went through Teen Court and one of the consequences assigned to them was Community Service. They loved animals, and so we looked at Animals as Natural Therapy (ANT); partnering with someone else who's also doing great work in the community. Together, we worked out a plan where Teen Court and ANT came together to help fund their participation. Going through ANT's Young Adult Workshop which focuses on animal-facilitated therapy and education, was really a life changing experience for them! Community Service doesn't have to be about being on, say, a garbage clean up crew. Community Service can also be inward focused, because when we're working on ourselves, the whole community benefits.