Lafayette Teen Court Inspires Our Youth to Lead

 Caitlin Ozene questioned the man on the stand, demanding to know if he knew who bumped into him, causing him to fall and break his arm in a crowded school hallway.

 “Is it true that you didn’t see who (struck) you from behind?” Ozene prodded as the man, the school’s janitor, sat next to the judge with a bandaged broken arm.

In the end, the jury sentenced her client, the student accused of hitting the victim from behind, to community service hours helping the janitor around school until his arm heals.

The scenario wasn’t a real one — but a mock one held in a Lafayette City Court courtroom to show the media and other guests, including 15th Judicial District Attorney Keith Stutes, how the newly organized Acadiana Teen Court program works.

The program provides teens with the option of going before their peers, who will decide the consequences for their actions. So, Ozene isn’t a real attorney but acts as one through her role with Acadiana Teen Court. She and other teens volunteer their time to serve as judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, bailiffs and jury. Adults — typically volunteer attorneys — will also be on hand to help guide the teens through the process.

Teens can be referred to the court by school campus principals or the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office and must agree to be a part of the process. That agreement includes a contract with the program that sets the terms of the judgment, which could range from various hours of community service to classes designed to improve family communication.

The teen also agrees to become part of Teen Court and to return as a volunteer — serving on the jury or some other position. The teens learn about the judicial process and also have the opportunity to help out their peers, said CeCi Verret, Teen Court director.

“I call it a civics lesson in action,” Verret said in an earlier interview prior to the Teen Court practice run.

Verret, who was involved in an effort to get a teen court launched in Lafayette years ago, is involved in the current effort and has worked to get principals on board. Ella Arsement, assistant court coordinator, and Erica Williams, court coordinator, volunteered their time to get the Teen Court program off the ground — without funding.

“We believe in this so much that we decided not to wait for funding,” Verret said. “We hope to raise money so we can have our own room and also have space for classes once a week.”

The idea is for the teens to run the program on their own with adult oversight, Arsement said. The program has partnered with the Lafayette Parish School System to help identify students who may benefit from the Teen Court program.

Jon’Qualan Alexander, 16, a sophomore at Northside High has now been on both sides of Teen Court. Alexander participated in another teen court program that existed until last year — first as a defendant and then as a volunteer.

“I was going down the wrong path,” Alexander said. “I know how it feels to come to Teen Court and also get sentenced. I hope when they go through (Teen Court) that they learn from their mistakes.”

Alexander and Ozene got involved with Teen Court through their membership in a leadership group founded by Williams, A New Vision Leadership Foundation of Acadiana.

Williams said her foundation offered the services of its members to assist with the Teen Court launch. She said the goal is to involve more teens across the parish. Volunteers are from area high schools as well as local colleges.

Williams said while the practice run was for two cases — the case of the student breaking school rules by running in the hall and injuring the janitor and a second about alleged cyberbulling — the Teen Court will likely have a full docket.

“I think on a normal night, we’ll be buzzing with cases. We’ve had several schools contact us about next week’s court,” Williams said.

Alexander is president of A New Vision and said he also hopes he can be a part of redirecting other teens who are heading down that path he once walked down.

“I can be a better person than I was before,” he said.

Ozene is 18 and a senior at Acadiana High. She said she typically serves as one of the Teen Court judges and that her role will be to ensure the jury “is getting good information and that the judgment is fair.”

The judgment or sentence for the teen depends on what they did, Ozene said.

“If a student got caught smoking on campus, then we may give them some classes on how to stop smoking. But, I’d also want to know: ‘Why are you smoking in school anyway?’ ” Ozene said.

That peer-to-peer accountability is what makes such programs successful in communities, Verret said.

The offenses that will come before the court are considered minor and not offenses the DA’s Office would pursue charges on if it’s a first-time offender, like underage drinking, smoking on campus, fighting or shoplifting, organizers said.

“The hope is that they’d be referred by the school system before they get to us,” said Stutes after watching the mock cases earlier this week. “Typically, we get cases referred by the school system. We’d refer cases (to Teen Court) that don’t rise to the merit of filing a charge and also those teens who may be most receptive to (Teen Court). It’s peer pressure in reverse. The most dangerous things to teens are not knives, guns or drugs — it’s peer pressure. This uses that peer pressure for a positive outcome.”

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.