New members of Kenai Peninsula Youth Court were sworn in at the Homer courthouse Feb. 13, in the presence of Judge Margaret Murphy, KPYC director Ginny Espinshade, parents and teachers.
Among those raising their right hand were 14 students from West Homer Elementary School, the only elementary school in Alaska to participate in the program. Also sworn in were two Homer Middle School students, two Homer High School students and two Homer Flex students.
“We started (studying) in October and took the bar right before Christmas,” said WHES teacher Shirlie Gribble, who works with the fifth- and sixth-grade students interested in the program.
Espinshade also met with the students.
“They go through how laws are made, go through law books, know the layout of the court room, they have to know about defense and what the types of offenses are,” said Gribble of what the students are required to know.
Youth court is an opportunity for young people ages 12-18 accused of breaking laws to be judged by their peers. The court consists of students filling in roles from judges to jurors. There is nothing pretend about it; Kenai Peninsula Youth Court is the real deal with sentences imposed. Defendants, generally first-time offenders, are given the chance to resolve legal problems without receiving a criminal record; all proceedings are confidential. Defendants and their guardians choose to participate in the program. Sentences determined by youth court provide community service and restitution.
This year, Espinshade is having the younger students mentored by the middle and high school students.
“They’re usually eligible to be in a court that deals with crimes when they’re in seventh grade or older and the fifth- and sixth-graders deal withschool offenses, but they’ll be seventh graders in six month so these sixth-graders have been invited to be assistant attorneys,” said Espinshade of the new opportunity.
“This is a combination of a wonderful group of younger students that took it seriously, but are kind to each other. It’s a great combination to make this change and give it a try.”
For receiving perfect scores on the bar exam, two students — Kira Hamilton of Homer Middle School and Brenna McCarron of West Homer — received Golden Gavel awards.
“When I grow up, I want to be a lawyer, so I just figured why not start now,” said Brenna of her interest in youth court. “I like standing up for people, helping people.”
On Feb. 12, the WHES students displayed their courtroom knowledge for the school’s student body by performing mock trials of the Grinch, one trial for each grade level with the student body acting as jurors. The trials were held in the school’s library.
“They got better and better,” said WHES librarian Lisa Whip of the improvement she witnessed throughout the day. “It was really like you were in a court of law.”
From Gribble’s observations, youth court teaches students about second chances.
“Just because you’ve made a bad choice doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. That’s really what (Espinshade) works on with this age. It’s about choices,” said Gribble.
Involving fifth- and sixth-graders in issues they hear about is a way to “give them a chance to deal with solutions,” said Espinshade. “The other big factor is that when they get into middle school, they’re pulled in so many directions that if I can get them engaged and excited about being in youth court service to the community, it might be something that they (continue).”
Alaska Youth Courts handle an average of 1,000 cases per year, saving the state of Alaska an estimated $10,686 per defendant, according to information provided by KPYC. They generate more than $98,000 in community service work annually and reduce crime rates by 11.1 percent. On the Kenai Peninsula, there are youth courts in Homer, Kenai, Voznesenka and the elementary school court at West Homer Elementary School.
This year’s statewide Youth Court Conference will be held in Homer April 18-21.
For more information on KPYC, call Espinshade at 235-4985 or (907) 398-4027.
Newly sworn-in Youth Court members:
On Feb. 13, the following students were sworn in as participants of Kenai Peninsula Youth Court:
West Homer Elementary School:
Mya Betts, Autumn Carlson, Parker Gibson, Tom Gorman, Christian Harrigan, Maxwell Johnson, Dexter Lowe, Ali McCarron, Brenna McCarron, Michael Munns, Caleb Rauch, Cole Roberts, Rylyn Todd, Audrey Wallace
Kira Hamilton and Alicia Steiner
Homer High School:
Marshall Fuller and Grace Kann
Homer Flex School:
Frank Hunter and Maria Kulikov