Teens Helping Teens

Community Foundation

BY BRITTANY MATTIE SRQ DAILY WEDNESDAY PHILANTHROPY EDITION WEDNESDAY SEP 12, 2018

Scripted TV shows like Law & Order and Bull define the inside of a courtroom in the same light—tense, fraught and unnerving with harsh punishments and unforgiving practices. But for Teen Court of Sarasota, Inc., they want anything but for the children that end up on the stand. The youth problem-solving court provides students 8-18 who have been charged for minor offenses or misdemeanors, the opportunity to stay out of the criminal justice system, while still holding them accountable for their delinquent acts. In lieu of school suspension or expulsion and blanketed punishments often given by the alternative Juvenile Court, Teen Court offers instead, educational activities and development services designed to meet the specific needs of at-risk youths.

Teen Court of Sarasota was the first of its kind in the state and one of three youth courts (out of 57 total in Florida now) to operate as a nonprofit, which is where Community Foundation of Sarasota County steps in—to serve the school referral process and aid Sarasota County school administrators, guidance counselors, behavior specialists and principles the ability to send referrals for fair trial. And fair trial in this case means teens helping teens. The court is actually staffed by past offenders and youth volunteers who serve the roles of jury, lawyers, bailiffs, clerks and judges—operating very much like a traditional court—holding hearings and deliberating to determine an appropriate disposition. The defendant’s sentence is determined by their same-aged peers and usually includes community service, written essays, educational workshops, anger-management classes, mental health components for risky behavior or substance abuse programs in cases of alcohol or drug charges. And many do end up coming back to the courtroom on the other side as prosecuting or defending attorneys, jurors, etc.—admitting Teen Court “saved” them.

And with a 95% success rate—with only 4-6% of teens continuing to get into trouble—it’s plain to see how productive its restorative strategy is. “Instead of kicking them out of school, our mission is to keep them in school, give them a second chance for a brighter future and an opportunity to right a wrong,” Executive Director Heather Todd highlights. “We’re planting the seed for civic engagement.” The positive reinforcement actually proves to boost self-esteem and instill a passion for volunteerism by opening their eyes to the benefits of giving back and becoming active participants in finding solutions for problems that impact our community. Offenders can choose from beach cleanups facilitated by Mote Marine Laboratory, helping out at animal shelters, sports game concession stands, local theaters and moresubsequently introducing them to positive adult role models/mentors while exploring possible career choices.

“What’s special about Teen Court is the fact that we hear the defendants out, empower them to speak up and give them a voice in front of their parents, empathetic peers and educators,” says Todd. “We have kids from the richest families and kids from the poorest families. We serve everyone and welcome anyone that walk through those doors.” Because we’ve all made mistakes in our past haven’t we? Especially kids just trying to get through high school—often misguided or put in tough situations—the question of right from wrong becomes a blurred line. “They’re good kids who have just made poor decisions. And in Teen Court they can be heard,” Todd says. “A lot of times these young people feel misunderstood or unheard, but in this setting, their voices matter—it’s a beautiful process.”

Teen Court of Sarasota, Inc. has opportunities for and welcomes both youth and adult volunteers. If you're interested in their program, the best thing to do is observe the process for yourself. Check the calendar for Teen Court session dates which take place every other week, on Mondays in Venice and Wednesdays in Sarasota. 

The Community Foundation of Sarasota County is proud to partner with SRQ Media Group to highlight stories about community impact powered by philanthropy in our region, thanks to the support of donors and our local nonprofit partners. The Community Foundation is a public charity founded in 1979 by the Southwest Florida Estate Planning Council as a resource for caring individuals and the causes they support, enabling them to make a charitable impact on the community.

Photo provided by Teen Court of Sarasota, Inc., 101 South Washington Blvd., Sarasota, 941-861-8460.

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