Teen Court helps students learn from their peers

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Peer connections drive positive outcomes. That message is clear in Stark County Teen Court, a program where students gain real courtroom experience and juvenile defendants can get a second chance.

Funded through a grant from United Way of Greater Stark County, the program allows high school students to serve as prosecutors, defense attorneys and jurors on juvenile cases.

“When we first started out, we thought that it would benefit the defendants a great deal more, but it was a win-win situation for everybody,” said Joyce Salapack, JDAI Director at Stark County Family Court.

The program began in 1995 with only eight student volunteers. Today, it trains more than 250 students across eight Stark County schools each year. Over the course of the school year, the students oversee more than 400 cases of juveniles charged misdemeanor offenses such as petty theft, drug or alcohol possession, chronic truancy and unruly behavior.

Salapack said the experience leaves a lasting impact on the students who volunteer.

“They are empowered,” said Salapack. “They come back to our community after they graduate from college and serve as public defenders or prosecutors in the service profession. They also volunteer in other areas within our community.”

Skylar Woods, a juvenile probation officer with Stark County Family Court, said the program ultimately encouraged her to pursue a career in law.

“[Teen court] guided me in the direction of what I wanted to do in the near future,” said Woods. “Especially in high school, I wasn't very sure where I wanted to go in furthering my education, so that really kind of bridged the gap for me.”

Stark County Family Court Judge Jim James said Teen Court defendants and their families experience major breakthroughs during the process, and the recidivism rate for the program remains low.

“Those breakthroughs, we believe, have helped prevent that youth from committing offenses again,” said James. “In fact, what we do know from our studies is that 85 percent of the kids who go through Teen Court don't ever come back to court. And that's a really stellar rate of success in my opinion.”

James also credits the success of the program in-part to United Way of Greater Stark County.

“As a family court judge, I can tell you that family court relies heavily on [United Way of Greater Stark County] as we try to connect families who are in trouble to services they need,” said James. “If we didn't have the dollars and the support of United Way in our community, these folks would not have the resources they need to succeed.”

About Teen Court

Teen Court is a partnership between Stark County Family Court and United Way of Greater Stark County that offers an alternative to traditional juvenile court proceedings for first-time nonviolent offenders.

You can help us create more success stories by supporting Teen Court and our other community programs by making a donation today.