This fall, a dozen male students from New Trier High School became ensnared in an investigation involving the transmission and proliferation of nude photos of their underage peers via text messages, Facebook, and other forms of social media.
This isn’t the first sexting scandal to rock North Shore schools — one in Lake Forest a few years ago took down a principal. It is, however, arguably one of the more notable cases to be referred to the New Trier Township’s Peer Jury — a program that has become increasingly prevalent in small-town areas, both statewide and nationally, over the past 20 years.
The peer jury (or “teen court”) system is an informal alternative to traditional juvenile court, normally run by a coalition of police departments, townships, and school districts. Rather than send a juvenile offender to court, police will, in certain cases (like criminal damage to property, underage drinking, or sexting) pass offenders who’ve plead guilty to their corresponding peer juries instead. If they complete the sentence handed down from their peers — oftentimes community service and/or letters of apology — they’ll leave the jury with a clean record.
New Trier Township’s Community Service Administrator Brian Leverenz has been supervising the program since its establishment in 1998. All high school students with a grade point average above 3.0 are welcome to apply to serve as a juror, and cases are referred from any of the township’s five police departments: Glencoe, Winnetka, Wilmette, Kenilworth, and Northfield.
“It’s one thing for an adult to say a kid has done something wrong,” Leverenz says. “But when your peers are telling you something, in theory it has a lot more power because this message is coming from people your own age.”
In the traditional system, Leverenz adds, a first-time offender with a minor offense may get screened out of juvenile court; even if he or she does step in front of a judge, it’s unlikely that the offender will receive anything more than a brief admonishment.
“Instead of five minutes in front of a judge,” Leverenz says, “kids are going to spend 15-20 minutes in front of their peers.”
An offender’s attitude, level of remorse, and general presentation during the questioning from his or her peers all factor into the jury’s collective sentencing. Moreover, participants are required to check in on a consistent basis with the court to keep them abreast of their progress.
“The good thing about the teen courts immersion program,” says Lake Forest Police Department’s School Resources Officer Brett Marquette, who’s been involved in their version of the system for five years, “is that you’re holding that teen accountable. They have to answer all the questions, they have to do all the community service, and they have to write the letter of apology.”
“I think most, if not all, of the people we gave sentences to were grateful for not having it on their record,” Carrie Rodman says. She’s a former peer juror with the New Trier Township program and currently a sophomore at Georgetown University.
“It takes a negative experience and turns it into something very meaningful, or at the very least a good learning experience.”
One of the biggest challenges for Rodman, as a juror, was actually espousing advice to her peers, some of who may’ve been older than her at the time. And though there is a strict confidentiality agreement for what goes on in court — and jurors who know the offender personally must recuse themselves — she notes that it certainly can be strange to run into the subject at school or around town afterwards.
“It definitely took some getting used to,” she says.
The sensationalism of the New Trier sexting case could well intensify this awkwardness — for students on both sides of the table. Still, Leverenz contends that it’s far better to try these offenders in front a jury of one’s peers than in juvenile court.
“Kids don’t understand the notion of privacy anymore because of technology, and that’s the message the police want to get out there,” Leverenz says. “The students are going to learn their lesson [here] without damaging their lives.”
Rodman, from a former juror’s perspective, seems to agree.
“For sensitive cases I’ve had in the past, it can be emotional and hard at times,” Rodman recalls. “But we always approached it with respect, and a lot of positive and productive discussions came about from cases like this.”