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LSU Social Work Students Give At-Risk Teens a Voice

Social Work service-learning students are giving at-risk teens a voice through Teen Court of Greater Baton Rouge, which hosts group interventions for first-time offenders.

Teen Court is an alternative to the juvenile justice system for first-time, misdemeanor, nonviolent offenders between the ages of 10-17. The offender agrees to voluntarily submit to a trial and carry out community service and other sentences imposed by a trained jury of their peers. Trained teens also participate as court clerks, prosecuting attorneys, bailiffs, and defense attorneys. An adult judge oversees the trial, and attorneys assist in the process.

Peer juries “impose a constructive sentence instead of a slap-on-the-wrist punishment. It is restorative,” said Donna Buuck, education coordinator for the Baton Rouge Bar Association. “This includes things to right the wrong they have done and help them to learn to make better choices. It usually includes some hours of community service and perhaps a letter of apology or an essay. The intervention sessions are mandatory.”

Pioneering Teen Court Interventions

Since Teen Court’s inception in September 2006, School of Social Work graduate students in Carol Plummer’s Child and Family courses have researched, designed, implemented, and evaluated group intervention sessions – which have become a powerful component in the success of the Teen Court experience.

Groups of 10 teens, with Social Work student mentors, discuss such topics as peer pressure, goal setting, problem solving, communication, self-awareness, and anger management.

The program holds youth accountable for delinquent and problem behavior, educates them about the legal system and their role in it, and empowers them to be active in helping their communities solve problems. Greater Baton Rouge Teen Court is one of 13 in Louisiana and more than 1,100 youth court programs in the United States. Research has shown that states with Teen Court programs have a lower rate of recidivism than their juvenile justice counterparts.

The service-learning initiative was introduced early in the planning process when Melanie Fields, assistant district attorney serving the East Baton Rouge Parish juvenile division, met one of Plummer’s classes for a mock trial presentation to prepare students to testify in court. She then asked Plummer to work on the concept of Teen Court with her and other legal and social service professionals.

“Teen Court planners thought it would be good for these teens to have some kind of educational experience so that this one mistake is not the first in a long line of mistakes,” Plummer said.

Groups Conduct Research, Interventions, and Evaluations

At the start of the program, Plummer’s fall 2006 Child and Family class worked in groups to plan the Teen Court sessions. The first group studied juvenile delinquency, skill deficit problems, intervention theory, and conducted research to determine the best type of intervention.

Based on the research, Plummer’s students investigated possible interventions, matching demographics of the teens in the Baton Rouge program with the best possible methods of group processes. They created exercises appropriate for the age, gender, developmental level, and infractions of teens in the program.

The second service-learning group conducted the actual intervention, using recommendations created by the research group. Their work required constant communication with those who had designed the interventions, Plummer explained.

The third group evaluated the program.

“They needed to be very familiar with the research and theory, as well as the actual process of how the groups were implemented,” Plummer said.

The evaluators conducted pre-tests, interviews with teens and parents, and polls involving their fellow students who led the sessions.

“Their evaluation encompassed everything from process evaluations to summative evaluations, including parents’ perspectives and what they felt their children received from their participation,” Plummer said. “All of those groups were continually reporting back to the whole class, so it was a very dynamic process with each group learning from the other.”

The successful service-learning project was continued in the spring in Plummer’s Child and Family II course, using the group intervention research and design developed by service-learning students in the previous semester.

Grappling with Issues in a Real-World Setting

For many of Plummer’s students, it was the first time they participated in group work of this type.

“It helped all students really grapple with what is causing juvenile delinquency in our culture and what we should be doing about it,” she said. “It really brought it home with the actual kids being right in front of their faces,” Plummer said. “Juvenile delinquency was not just a vague concept any more. It was flesh and blood for them.”

Social Work student Shannon Hunter of New Orleans worked directly with the teen groups in both fall and spring semesters on such topics as anger management and basic life skills.

“We didn’t take student/teacher roles. We all learned together,” Hunter said of the groups. “I gained a lot of patience because I worked with different children from different cultural backgrounds. I learned how to relate to teenagers in a more down-to-earth and relaxing way. It helped me to develop my skills in bettering my rapport with adolescents.”

Hunter said her service-learning experience, which required her to assist others in a real-world setting, was different from traditional classroom instruction.

“In the classroom, when you’re reading something out of the text and you don’t have the answer, you can deal with it whenever you can,” Hunter said. “When you’re dealing with real life people, you need the answer right away. People are depending on you. It was a valuable experience. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

With the help of LSU service-learning students, the experience has been even more dynamic for the teen clients – from appearing before the jury to the completion of the program. After completing the group session, teens are required to serve on a jury. They may later train to serve in another courtroom position.

“We’re hoping that they will stay on because it’s such a positive way for them to spend their time,” Buuck said.

“It is a great way for teens to come and meet with other people who have similar issues and talk about problems that they all have – anger management, triggers, bullying – issues that they all face and that, really, all teens face.”

The Social Work students served as mentors, encouraging the teens in all areas of their lives.

“A few of these kids had really deeper issues, and they could help them out as well,” Buuck said.

The groups also provided a place where the teens could belong and freely talk about their lives without pressure to perform.

“They would get here early and would want to stay late,” she said. “They would just love it. They liked to talk. It let them have a voice.”

Roxanne Dill | LSU Office of Public Affairs
Fall 2007

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