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LSU Community Counseling Students Help Guide Teen Offenders Down Better Path

Every Thursday evening during the spring semester, a group of LSU students gathered around a conference table at the Baton Rouge Bar Association. They weren't aspiring lawyers, but master's degree candidates in the College of Education Counselor Education Program.

These students served as counselors for Baton Rouge Bar Foundation's Teen Court program, facilitating mandatory group counseling sessions for teen offenders each week. Through their participation in Teen Court, community counseling students were given the opportunity to expand their counseling horizons and gain first-hand experience dealing with high-risk teens.

Teen Court is a voluntary juvenile diversion program that allows first-time misdemeanor offenders to be sentenced by their peers. Offenders receive constructive sentences such as community service, counseling sessions, apology letters and damage reparation. Middle and high school-age volunteers perform roles of prosecuting and defense attorneys, bailiff and jurors. Teen Court utilizes positive peer pressure to send a clear message to offenders about their behavior. As part of the Teen Court program, each teen is required to attend six group sessions facilitated by LSU counseling students.

Guidance from younger counselors encourages the teens to feel more comfortable, and in turn, become more open and honest. According to Laura Choate, associate professor in the LSU College of Education and faculty supervisor of student involvement in the Teen Court program, teen participants responded positively to group sessions, reporting that they appreciated the counselors' willingness to provide a space in which their voices can be heard.

"I believe that it helps the teens to have slightly younger role models to help them relate better," said Asha Vyas, a second-year master's student from Gonzales. "It was amazing how many times we were asked where we are in school and what it's like to be in college. We take these opportunities to advertise and encourage what the benefits of continuing education are."

Vyas is one of several LSU community counseling students who volunteered their time each week at Teen Court. The counselors' group sessions aim to teach teen offenders psychoeducational life skills such as self care, problem-solving, interpersonal communication, conflict resolution, anger management and identity development. Studies have found that participants in Teen Court programs are less likely to become repeat offenders.

While many of the teens initially resist group activities and express their disdain for the program, by the end of six sessions, most embraced the group environment. Vyas said that one of the most rewarding aspects of the program is watching some of the most introverted and reluctant teens begin to interact with their peers and counselors.

"Well, it has been a rough six weeks, but through it all I have learned so much," said one teen participant. "I have learned to be more open-minded and that it is okay to open up to people ... Without the counselors I would not have opened my eyes to see what things really are."

The program fostered a positive outlook and attempts to help teens view their misdemeanors as a learning experience that they can grow from. On a participant feedback form, another teen expresses how the program has helped change her view of the world.

"In a way I am kind of glad that this happened," she said. "It wasn't under the best of circumstances, but if it wasn't for this, then I would still be the little girl I was before the class ... the little girl who didn't care where she ended up. The girl that was always mad at the world. Now I look back at my old self and ask, 'Is that really who I want to be, the girl mad at the world?'"

The teens were not the only ones developing new outlooks on the world.

"I have to admit that I would probably never have worked with the high-risk teen population had this not been an opportunity," said Vyas."I was undoubtedly nervous about the first session. But as the hour and a half ticked by, those generalizations about teen offenders I was fighting in my head subsided. It was very clear that for many of these teens, it was either wrong place/wrong time situations or the blatant fact that they just didn't have the skills to deal with life's challenges. They helped me to gain an empathy that cannot be taught in any course."

The Counselor Education Program's involvement with Teen Court gave its students a rare opportunity to challenge themselves and expand on the skills, knowledge and professionalism learned in the classroom. On both sides of the program, participants learned the value of communication, community service and support.

"My overall experience with Teen Court was one of knowledge and self-growth," said Vyas. "I have learned a lot about the way adolescents cope with struggles and conflict on a first-hand basis. I believe there were days I honestly learned more from them than they did from me."

Choate was assisted in developing her student's work with Teen Court through LSU's Center for Community Engagement, Learning and Leadership, or CCELL. CCELL promotes community engagement by serving as a clearinghouse for service-learning pedagogy and community partnerships; promotes learning by informing and helping to coordinate planning, research, pedagogy, and assessment associated with service-learning and other innovative student learning initiatives; and develops student leadership skills by facilitating service-learning and related student initiatives. For more information on CCELL, visit http://appl003.lsu.edu/slas/ccell/ccell.nsf/index.

The LSU Counselor Education Program is a division of the LSU College of Education Department of Educational Theory, Policy and Practice. Visit http://coe.ednet.lsu.edu/coe/ETPP/counseling/counseling.html to learn more about the LSU Counselor Education Program.

For more information on Baton Rouge Teen Court, visit www.brba.org/forms/TCinfo_adult2010.pdf.