Round Lake Middle School's peer court a success, participants say

Noting a lack of recidivism and other behavioral improvements, the organizers of Round Lake Middle School's peer court are calling the three-month-old program a success.

The eighth-graders who've served as jurors in the program — an alternative to suspension or other disciplinary measures for students who qualify — are proud of their work, too.

“It's a great way to give kids a second chance and not have (an infraction) on their record,” peer juror Brett Herdman said.

Meeting weekly in the school library, the peer jury has heard about a dozen cases since it launched in January. It's unusual for a middle school; peer courts are more common at the high school level.

The goal is to provide a positive outlet “in which students can resolve school-related conflicts and avoid a possible suspension,” Principal Jeffrey Prickett explained in an email.

The hearings also are opportunities for students to make up for whatever wrongs they committed, Prickett said.

Typically, 10 students hear the cases, led by a local attorney who wears a judge's robe for the proceedings. The student jurors — all wearing matching blue-and-yellow shirts — are assisted by teachers and other school staffers.

Most of the cases have dealt with continued disrespectful behavior, Prickett said. Some have involved relatively minor acts of violence and other problems.

For example, when the panel met this week, it heard the case of a student accused of slapping a friend on the back of the head because he'd teased his sister.

Cases are referred to the peer court by administrators who first review the students' record to determine if the program is the appropriate course.

Students — called defendants in the program — must first admit their guilt to appear before the jury.

Participants and any observers must promise to keep what's said during the hearings confidential.

All of the defendants are ordered to attend a class that aims to help them make better decisions, and they must complete at least 20 hours of community service. But the sentences often get creative, too.

In one recent case, a student who pulled a fire alarm on a dare was ordered to apologize to local firefighters and speak to fifth-graders about peer pressure.

The results have been impressive, school officials said.

“I've seen a lot of changes in the kids who have come through here,” said Diane Gleeson, a seventh-grade teacher and peer jury sponsor. And the other kids see that — they almost become role models.”

The defendants are encouraged to bring parents to the hearings, but not all do. They stand before the jurors and the group's adult leader and field questions about their behavior.

“Don't you think you could've handled it a different way?” one juror asked the boy accused of slapping a friend.

“If he was your friend, why did you slap him?” a fellow juror asked.

The adult leading the peer jury asks questions, too. This week, Round Lake Area Unit District 116 board member Lori Berdenis wore the black robe.

Berdenis tried to give the young defendant some advice, too.

“You have to understand that your actions have serious consequences,” she said. “You need to take your behavior seriously.”

Berdenis, who's served as a teen court judge at some Lake County high schools, called the experience “amazing.”

“It makes kids responsible,” she said. “I think kids respond better to their peers.”

A dozen or so seventh-graders who will comprise the peer jury in the 2013-14 term sat in on this week's hearing. Berdenis is particularly proud of the student volunteers.

“They're proud of their community,” she said

  Attorney Lori Berdenis, of Round Lake Beach, acts as judge as jurors Ruby Guevara, left, and Makena Ridiros listen during Peer Court at Round Lake Middle School. The program is an alternative to suspension or other disciplinary measures for students who qualify. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
  Eighth-grader Brett Herdman discusses the case with other jurors and the judge during Peer Court at Round Lake Middle School. The peer jury began in January and has heard about a dozen cases. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
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