DOJ Spending $1.8 Million Testing Kid-Run Courts to Combat Bullying

‘Youth courts’ allow students to discipline each other

Screenshot from 'Lord of the Flies'
Screenshot from 'Lord of the Flies'
May 29, 2015

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is spending nearly $2 million to see if courts run by teenagers can be a viable tool to fight school bullying.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) tasked WestEd, a San Francisco-based education research group, late last year to study the effectiveness of "youth courts," where the roles of judge, jury, defense, and prosecution are filled by students, who can then administer punishment in middle and high schools.

"Reports of violence, bullying, and other offenses have resulted in concerns about school safety," according to the NIJ grant. "Administrators, anxious to restore order, have adopted policies focusing on punishment that often results in removing students from school. Research indicates that such punishments do not increase school safety, but push youth, particularly minority students, out from mainstream education."

The grant argues that rather than adult administrators disciplining students, the students should punish each other.

"Educators are looking for strategies to hold youth accountable while keeping them in the classroom and engaged in school," the grant said. "One such strategy is the school-based youth court. In this program, pro-social youth occupy all the court roles: jury, judge, prosecutor, defender, and clerk/bailiff. Offenders have their case heard and receive a peer-imposed sentence, usually some type of community service."

"School-based youth courts have been implemented in over 400 sites nationally," the grant continued. "However, despite their popularity, there has been no rigorous study of their effectiveness. This project proposes a national impact study of the four most common school-based youth court models."

The study will cost taxpayers $1,836,976 to study different types of youth courts, which can be run through a school or partnership with a juvenile justice program or community group.

One thousand participants will be included in the study, which will analyze the "moderating effects of race/ethnicity and gender."

"As the largest and most ambitious randomized trial ever conducted of school-based youth courts, this study will greatly contribute to knowledge about the efficacy of school based youth courts," the grant said. "An aggressive dissemination campaign via multiple scientific and policy/practice channels is proposed."

Proponents of youth courts say they can be used to prevent teens from entering the criminal justice system. A high school outside Philadelphia uses its youth court as a mentor program. The Chester High youth court also allows students to interrogate one another for talking in class.

WestEd said its researchers are still in the early stages of selecting participants for the NIJ study, which plans to run for three years. The organization said they do not anticipate a need for additional funding from the DOJ.

WestEd has received a total $4,112,045 from NIJ since 2006, including another $1.5 million project to study bullying interventions in elementary schools. The "No Bully" project is training teachers to be a "Solution Coach" to work with the "bullying victim, bully followers, and several pro-social peers on developing solutions for ending the bullying."

Requests for comment from the DOJ and the NIJ were not returned.