When petite 17-year-old Sierra Welch stepped up to a lectern that she barely stood head and shoulders above, those attending this week’s Board of Ed meeting didn’t know what she was going to say.
By the time she was done talking about the work she’s doing to bring justice to the classroom, they were clapping.
Sierra, a junior at the the Sound School, was invited by board member Darnell Goldson to talk about Project Youth Court and the peer-to-peer work that keeps young people out of the juvenile justice system.
“Project Youth Court is like a regular court trial except that we are youth,” she told board members at the meeting Monday night. “We are youth interviewing youth. We are youth supporting youth. Youth court definitely strives for restorative justice — we have a restorative contract. And what we do at Youth Court is we basically help kids to move on to a better path from why they were sent to Youth Court.”
Sierra is among the students who volunteers with Project Youth Court, which project Executive Director Jane Michaud, said is part of the school district’s restorative justice initiative. Students like Sierra serve as jurors, attorneys, bailiffs and clerks to adjudicate the infractions of their fellow students. They devise what is known as “restorative contracts” that the offending student has to follow.
Project Youth Court, which is aided by local attorneys and judges like U.S. District Judge Jeffrey A. Meyer. comes under the umbrella of the city’s Youth Stat effort.
Michaud said students are often required to volunteer with Project Youth Court as part of their restorative contract after they’ve gotten in trouble. They go on to stay with the program and contribute to offering a “second chance” to their fellow students.
“It’s been very successful,” Michaud said
“We are not here to put them in jail. We are not here to kill them,” Sierra explained. “However we are here to help them in order for them to be a better person. We, as youth are involved, we are hands on, because youth understands youth. So what we do is we want to help and encourage our youth the best way we can. And youth court is a good way. We volunteer our time and take out our time to be with youth.”
Sierra said she has served as both a youth attorney delivering opening and closing statements and questioning the client.
Board member Carlos Torre if the cases are hypothetical. She informed him that they are very real, and the restorative contracts are binding.
“I have asked questions for the client interview, helped on the restorative contract, and have given the student responsibility for what they are going to do next whether that is community service, jury duty, tutoring someone, or they need tutoring,” she said. “They’re definitely real cases.”
Sierra has developed public speaking skills through the program, as she demonstrated at Monday’s meeting. To her Project Youth Court is more than just community service — it’s about social justice.
“You’re not a youth playing an adult role,” she said. “You are a youth talking to a young person, and you have to remember that. And you don’t know what somebody is going through with their friends or at home. You don’t know their background. So you have to treat them like a human, you can’t treat them like ‘I’m reading your case and I’m better than you.’ You absolutely cannot do that because it’s not fair. Who are you to judge somebody. You’re no one to judge anyone.”
“It sounds like a good lesson that you’ve learned,” Mayor Toni Harp said.
Board member Ed Joyner said listening to Sierra speak made him have “a Constance Baker Motley moment.”
“Nothing makes a teacher or administrator feel better than to see students clearly take advantage of opportunities and represent the district in the way you are doing now,” he said. “And I would hope you would read Constance Baker Motley’s biography ... so that you would know that at one point [she was] just like you. You are very impressive and we are very proud of you.”
Superintendent Reggie Mayo asked Sierra about her career aspirations. It turns out she’s not looking to be an attorney. She wants to be a marine biologist, Butt she said she will be forever a proponent of social justice.
“I will do the best that I can do to help the world that I’m in and make it a better place,” she said.
“Well, we’re looking for a superintendent ...” Mayo remarked, drawing a hearty laugh from the crowd at the meeting.