Evanston Township High School peer jury ‘turns negative into positive,’ reduces suspensions

Manuel Rapada

After talking back and refusing to put away his cell phone, “Bobby” sat in a crammed circle surrounded by his teacher and peers in a closet-like room on Evanston Township High School’s third floor.

“Welcome to peer jury,” said ETHS sophomore Jerry Kosiba, who has been involved in the program since middle school.

After an oath of confidentiality passed through the circle, peer jurors listened to both perspectives of the story and asked how Bobby could have handled the situation differently.

Bobby signed an agreement accepting his punishment, early morning academic support – but not a suspension.

Though Bobby and his scenario were part of a simulation, the ETHS peer jury program hears about 10 to 12 real cases a week. As a result of peer jury and other programs, first-semester suspensions dropped 37 percent at the school compared to that same period last year, according to Evanston Review.

Peer jury is one of several suspension alternatives listed in the school’s student handbook. As of April 12, the program had helped avoid 117 days of suspension, said Cristina Cortesi, the school’s restorative justice coordinator, in an email.

Restorative justice is intended to encourage understanding and repair harm caused by bad behavior.

Rosie Sharp, now a senior at Northeastern University in Boston, made a presentation on restorative justice in 2007 as part of her ETHS “senior studies” project. After her graduation, her plan for a peer jury program was approved by the school administration, Sharp said.

“I’m really happy that it’s all worked out and hopefully creating lots of benefits for the high school,” Sharp said Wednesday.

ETHS sophomore Joe Carr was once referred to the program after an altercation with his teacher and now regularly serves a juror to help resolve cases involving other students. He said he was initially skeptical about peer jury but ultimately decided to participate as a juror because he thinks there are always two sides to a story.

“It’s good that you get to hear both sides of the story and really get a better understanding of what’s going on previous to the situation occurring,” he said.

Laurel Hill, an ETHS junior, said jurors completed summer training, participating in mock cases and discussing issues such as confidentiality and racial sensitivity.

Cortesi said the school’s deans decide whether a case is eligible for a peer jury. The program does not handle cases involving drugs or serious violence, she added.

“Even though it’s been five years, I think there are some cases that school districts feel like they should be overseeing,” Cortesi said.

For the cases peer juries do consider, Cortesi said a juror first explains that meeting in a circle ensures everyone is treated as equals.

The length of a peer jury discussion depends on how cooperative the student wants to be, said ETHS junior Nick Rex. He added that jurors try to open up with students about topics that will loosen up the atmosphere in the room, referencing a time they discussed rappers Tupac and Notorious B.I.G.

ETHS senior Shantel Jones said the program is underused and not well-known on campus. If the deans do not give the jury enough cases, she said the jurors will not have the opportunity to help improve the school community by preventing suspensions.

“We don’t have … enough people on our side really pushing for peer jury and encouraging what we do,” she said.

One of the problems of peer jury is abuse of the system, said Amanda Morgan. The ETHS junior added she can tell if someone is uninterested in the jury.

“They come here just so they don’t want to get suspended, not because they really … care about fixing what they did,” she said.

Still, Jones said the ETHS program is not only fair but also more effective than other punishments.

“The whole idea of peer jury is to turn a negative into a positive,” Jones said. “And so when creating the agreement, not only does the student benefit but the school community benefits as well.”

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