Grace Figgers:We're not here to judge you or punish you. We're here to understand your situation and help you understand the harm caused by your actions to the victim, to yourself, and to the community.
Narrator: Here at Manual Middle and High School in Peoria, Illinois, peer jury gives students a chance to resolve their problems with help from those who understand where they're coming from. When students get in trouble, they can opt to sort out the dispute in front of a jury of their peers instead of the principal, and together they reach an agreement on how to move forward.
Grace Figgers: We give students a chance to really tell us what happened and I've come to understand that we're all human, we all make mistakes, including students and teachers and that stuff just kind of blows up when there's no one to mediate.
Narrator: Before peer jury, Manual was becoming a pipeline for students to enter the juvenile justice system. Many kids were being taken to the juvenile detention center for bad behavior, but were released within a few hours.
Lori Brown: We needed to change the atmosphere there, because teachers were using the police as a first resort instead of a last, and what we realized is that we need to have an intervention in place that's going to give the teachers and the school another option for discipline.
Narrator: Manual teamed up with the Children's Home of Illinois through the MacArthur Foundation's Juvenile Justice Initiative/Models for Change to reduce the number of kids, especially minority kids, going to the juvenile justice system from school.
Holly Snyder: What statistics show is that once kids are in detention or enter the juvenile justice system, their risk of continuing in that system is higher. So if we can have an impact before that even happens, and teach these kids some new social skills and coping skills and competency skills, I think that we have for a better environment.
Narrator: The majority of cases they see are minor offenses that could land a student in detention or get them suspended, which has its own negative consequences but sometimes these students see cases that reflect the harsh reality that some teens face.
Justus Johnson: A while back, there was a student who came in, and the teacher had noticed a pattern in the student's behavior, decreasing, sleeping in class, not doing work, things like that. So finally the teacher referred the student to peer jury, and we sat down and spoke to the student, and we got to figure out that she was raising her two-year-old sister, she was going to work third shift, also trying to go to school, paying for bills, things like that. In this case, that student probably would have gotten suspended. I doubt that her pattern would have changed. It probably would have kept on going the same way it was. It probably would have gotten worse and when you suspend a student for something like that, the harm isn't repaired. Nothing is done.
Narrator: The program has not only made the school a much more positive place and prevented suspensions, it has also given these peer jurors a sense of purpose at their school.
Justus Johnson: We've noticeably made a difference in students' lives, and we can tell that as we walk down the hallway. And some of the students we've had in cases, we can see the difference that we've made.
Lori Brown: To have someone who truly is your peer say, "You know what? That was wrong, but here's a better way, and I'll help you get there." That can be powerful, and we believe that that's what changes lives and that's what we're trying to do, because we're trying to change our community, even if it's one child at a time.There may be small errors in this transcript.