Teen-arbiter program helps put troubled kids on right track

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LAWRENCE — The Merrimack Valley Youth Court concluded its session with an end-of-the-year ceremony at the Essex County Juvenile Court House on June 20.

Students from Methuen, Andover, North Andover, Haverhill and Central Catholic High School participated in the voluntary after-school program designed to use positive peer culture to address truancy and chronic school disciplinary issues throughout the school year.

Merrimack Valley Youth Court is the oldest of the four youth courts in the state. Director Nick Bound explained why the program is important to the community.

Bound is an assistant supervisor at Key Program, Inc., based in Salem, N.H. The company, which deals with at-risk youth, works with the Massachusetts Department of Social Services.

“It helps increase attendance in schools,” Bound said. “And decrease the rate of detentions, suspensions and acting-out behavior in the classrooms. It also helps parents create controlled environments at home.”

The 42 students, referred to as jurors, act as judges, defense and prosecution attorneys, and the jury to decide punishment for the problem students.

The group served 11 at-risk students this year. Eight of them successfully completed the program.

One of the success stories is 13-year-old Tenney Grammar School student K.C. Fuller. “Without you guys, I wouldn’t have passed seventh grade,” Fuller told the group of jurors. Fuller’s grandmother couldn’t agree more.

“It’s wonderful,” Ethel Fuller said of the program. “Without this court, K.C. wouldn’t have made the next grade.

One of Fuller’s mentors was Methuen High School senior Nick DiZoglio, to whom Ethel gives all the credit. “Nick pulled him from not wanting to do the work and going to school to doing the work and enjoying school.”

This is the first year Methuen joined the program. Six students — DiZoglio, Chandra Sheehy, Ciara Messineo, Joe Flannagan, Alizon Frusell and Patrick Nicholson — were quick to get involved.

“(Youth Court) inspired me to help in the community,” DiZoglio said. “It has inspired me to come back and help in the community and it helped inspire me in my career in political science.

DiZoglio, who has thought being a lawyer or a politician, said the student jurors are leaving with more than leadership skills.

“We are all leaving here knowing we did something different,” DiZoglio told his fellow graduates. “We’re leaving here knowing we made an impact.”

The jurors attend a 24-hour training program that teaches them about the juvenile justice system, assists them in developing skills to help cope with conflict resolution and communication, along with becoming a mentor to the kids in the program.

“It’s an amazing credit to the kids involved,” said probation officer Felipe Romero. “The whole concept of youth court is kids helping kids.”

Associate justices Jose Sanchez and Mark Newman, who oversee the training of the jurors, are very much involved in the program.

“Is (youth court) the cure-all?” Newman asked the crowd. “Absolutely not, but it becomes a tool among many tools.”

Newman told students and parents to encourage others to become involved in the program. “It’s important to the community,” Newman said. “Not only does it change those who appear in front of the court, but those who serve on the youth court.”

Bound added he feels the program works because of the youth involved.

“We feel peer mediation works better than adults telling them what to do,” Bound said. “It takes courage to come before a court of your peers.”

The other youth courts are in Malden, New Bedford and Taunton. There are currently more than 1,200 youth courts throughout the United States.

Have a story idea? Gayle Simone can be reached at 978-970-4838 or by e-mail at gsimone@thevalleydispatch.com.