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Sarasota Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019 2 months ago

Sarasota Teen Court gets a $25,000 gift of presence

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Organization plans to use a matching grant to establish on-campus operations.
by: Samantha Chaney Staff Writer

Being scrutinized when you’re in trouble is never easy, no matter how old you are. And, when you’re walking into court as a teenager, the experience can be terrifying.

But Teen Court of Sarasota presents an alternative.

Instead of going to a regular court, at-risk teenagers who have committed a crime have a chance to go to Teen Court, a court run by their peers. 

In Teen Court, the defendants explain their crime to a jury of their peers, and then receive a “sentence,” usually community service hours geared toward something in which they’re interested. The biggest difference is the teens can avoid having a criminal record by completing the program.

Teen Court Executive Director Heather Todd.

“Students are referred to Teen Court in lieu of a charge and in lieu of a suspension or expulsion,” Teen Court Executive Director Heather Todd said. “So, instead of a criminal offense, they’re sent to Teen Court for meaningful consequences and positive redirection, as opposed to, ‘Hey, we’re going to kick you out of school for three or five days.’ It allows the young person to stay in their school.”

And now, with a matching grant of $25,000 awarded to the organization by the Community Foundation of Sarasota, students can receive the attention they need without leaving campus.

Lashelle Williams, a client coordinator and case manager for Teen Court, used to have to wait for the young clients to come to her office in downtown Sarasota to help them. To get there, some students would miss class or face difficulty securing reliable transportation.

But the new grant, matched by the Sarasota County School Board, provides the Teen Court with the funding for case managers to be stationed at local high schools throughout the week so they can go to the students, not the other way around.

“For me, it’s made my life a lot easier with being at the schools and just reaching more kids in general. Building more relationships with the schools, so that they become more aware of what we are, what we do and the services we provide for the young people,” Williams said. “This way, they utilize us a lot more to provide for [students].”

Thanks to the grant, Teen Court is now able to serve the students of Booker, Venice, Riverview, North Port and Sarasota high schools and Triad on their own campuses.

One client, whose identity was withheld for publication, said Teen Court can help students who might not otherwise know of their options. 

“Coming in, I didn’t really know what to expect,” the client

Teen Court is run by students so that defendants may be positively redirected by their peers. Photo courtesy of the Teen Court of Sarasota.

said. “But through my experiences and the experiences of people I’ve met, I feel that — through volunteer and other services — kids, in general, can just really benefit.”

Additionally, the grant helps the Teen Court guarantee their services, regardless of a student’s financial background.

“The grant did help us to be able to provide more services for the kids because we’re a nonprofit and it helps us to cover fees of a school referral,” Williams said. “If a family can’t afford it, we’ll pick that up. We’ll never turn a family away because of prices or because of fees.”

Todd said Teen Court also offers counseling services, drug prevention, anti-bullying, and anger-management classes to certain students who “demonstrate extra need.”

“The services [students] will receive is saving lives. They are stopping this behavior and making good choices,” Todd affirmed. “This partnership with the Community Foundation and the Sarasota County School Board is saving lives.”

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