Kenai Peninsula Youth Court swears in elementary school students

  • Youth Court members — Natalie Harrington, Delilah Harris, Alana Houlihan, Sabina Morin, Abrianna Smith, Lillian Sweeney, Irais Turner and Beatrix Strobel — pose with Kenai Peninsula Youth Court Executive Director Ginny Espenshade after she swore them in at the Thursday, Jan. 14 ceremony.-Photo by Anna Frost, Homer News

A group of students from West Homer Elementary School and Fireweed Academy were sworn in as lawyers and judges at West Homer Elementary School after passing the bar exam on Thursday, Jan. 14. Afterward, they celebrated with their parents over cake and punch.

These students are not Homer’s resident Doogie Howsers — though many are quite bright — but rather in the elementary-school-level ranks of the Kenai Peninsula Youth Court. As part of the youth court at their school, they learn about the branches of the legal system from Ginny Espenshade, executive director of Kenai Peninsula Youth Court, and participate in mock trials. In addition to the educational portion, the members of the elementary school-level youth court sometimes proceed over sentencing for their peer’s school code violations, Espenshade said. 

All this prepares the students for the youth court program at the seventh to 12th grade level, where the youth court handles real criminal cases involving local minors. 

“They take actual criminal cases from the district court for underage drinking and then from juvenile court for things like shoplifting or vandalism for any youth under 18,” Espenshade said.

The benefit there lies not only with the members of the court who gain experience with the law, but for those who have broken the law. Those who complete the consequences given by the youth court have the incident removed from their permanent record. Minors who have their cases handled by the youth court often do not go on to commit another crime, Espenshade said.

“The program has helped young people take responsibility for mistakes without having permanent records, which in turn has prevented more serious mistakes in the future. We continue to have relatively low recidivism for our cases,” Espenshade said.

Some of West Homer Elementary’s students look forward to working within the youth court program when they get to middle school. 

Delilah Harris, a sixth grade student and judge in the program, is in her second year of youth court and wants to pursue a career in the legal field. Harris was also awarded at the ceremony for receiving the highest bar exam score — a 100 percent.

“I want to be a lawyer when I grow up so I thought that [youth court] would be really cool. … My favorite part is the mock trials, probably. They’re just fun that you get to play a real character in the court,” Delilah said.

Regardless of the career they pursue, the kids’ involvement has a positive impact on both them and their peers in the community.

“I like the idea of children being judged by their peers because it … might mean a little bit more to them and maybe take it a little more serious, or maybe not want to get involved in certain things, if they’re going to be judged by their peers on it,” said Jackie Smith, whose daughter Abrianna is a lawyer in the program.

Students Natalie Harrington, Delilah Harris, Sabina Morin, Abrianna Smith, Lillian Sweeney and Irais Turner attend West Homer Elementary School. Alana Houlihan and Beatrix Strobel are Fireweed Academy students.

Any student seventh grade or older who is interested in becoming involved in Youth Court should contact Ginny Espenshade at kpycalaska@gmail.com.

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