New partnerships benefit Salt Lake Peer Court

Published: Sunday, March 23 2014 11:05 p.m. MDT

Felicia Schneider gets a hoe from youth educator Emma Kroon Van Diest at the Wasatch Community Garden. Kids involved in Peer Court take part in community gardening Wednesday, March 12, 2014.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A local program offers troubled teens a chance to rehabilitate while learning trade skills.

Salt Lake Peer Court began in 1993 as a service for students in the Salt Lake City School District who have committed minor offenses such as truancy or first-time drug offenses.

In February, the court partnered with the Salt Lake Bicycle Collective, Wasatch Community Gardens and the Youth ARC, run in partnership with the University of Utah ArtsBridge program, in hopes of helping students rehabilitate while teaching them marketable skills.

"It translates to oftentimes the student just taking ownership of his or her life and just realizing, 'Wow. I really can do this. I can do school. I can be a leader among my peers,'" said Peer Court director Tyler Bugden.

Students are referred to Peer Court by a judge, their schools or the Salt Lake City Police Department to complete dispositions.

Because the court aims to rehabilitate, not punish, participants are given a disposition instead of a sentence.

"I view this as a nationwide movement to rephrase some of the ways that we talk about crime and rephrase the way we talk about offenders," Bugden said.

A panel of seven high school students and two college-age advisers assigns students to a disposition that may include attendance tracking, working at a community organization, career exploration or life-skills classes. They also work with a high school-age mentor who follows up with the student at least once a week.

"Peer pressure is a powerful thing. It can do bad things. It can do good things," Bugden said.

Youth ARC

On Thursday, students added finishing touches to an exquisite corpse project, where each person draws a different part of a body. Luis Sanchez penciled a skull tattoo on one corpse arm, glancing down at a book for reference as he scratched with his pencil. Giselle Martinez sketched piercings to the belly and chest.

Giselle, who is in her fourth week of a six-week program, said she was surprised at how much she liked Youth Artistic Reflections and Creativity. It has been fun and her grades have improved, she said. She plans on continuing to attend Youth ARC once her session ends.

Their class worked under the instruction of University of Utah student Tyler Hawks, who tried to engage the students as they worked. He asked about the symbolism behind the body parts.

"What would the arms represent, Luis?"

"Drawing," Luis said with a smile.

The programs haven't always met students' specific interests, Peer Court program coordinator Iris Salazar said. When she began as a mentor 15 years ago, students were either sent to perform community service or participate in school programs. Now the options have expanded, allowing students to complete relevant dispositions.

Wasatch Community Gardens

Felicia Schneider, 12, recently sat next to Wasatch Community Gardens youth educator Emma Kroon Van Diest, while they waited for other students to show up to their 4 p.m. City Roots class at the gardens.

Many of Peer Court students have trouble making it to the program, Bugden said.

"Our clientele, 95 percent of them are low-income so they don't have the same kind of resources that maybe you and I would have to get their whole family to and from school, to get their whole family to and from work," Bugden said.

This problem affects more than just their Peer Court attendance. Truant students make of 45 percent of the Peer Court caseload.

Bugden said Peer Court is working on solutions to help students show up but admits a student's success depends largely on their family and support network.

Although a recent grant allows Peer Court to give bus passes to their students, not all parents are comfortable sending their young teens on a bus alone to these programs that end in the evening, Bugden said.

If a student does not come to their assigned disposition, they do not pass. If they do not pass, they are sent back to whoever referred them and possibly filtered into the juvenile justice system.

Kroon Van Diest said gardening creates a shared experience in which people can work across from each other and form bonds despite their differences.

Time could only tell if that would be the case for Felicia and the two new counterparts at the community garden. Felicia dragged a spade down next to a rope to create a small trough for spinach seeds. Across from her, new attendee Dayani Vargas also created a row. They joined forces with Bugden, Peer Court mentor Ellie Campbell and newcomer Demetri Mata to bring canister after canister of water over to the rows of newly planted seeds.

It will be weeks before vegetables sprout, and possibly just as long to see what the three youths take away from their work in the garden.

Salt Lake Bicycle Collective

Ruben Aguilar, 13, came to the Salt Lake Bicycle Collective for the first time Wednesday as part of his Peer Court disposition. He joined other students in the Earn-A-Bike program to learn about bikes and bike maintenance.

He said he was "not really into bikes," but the work reminded him of the skateboards he's worked on in the past. Wearing a grey hoodie, he took his hands out of his sweatshirt pocket to twist and push a bike seat into place.

Jude Widmann, director of Earn-A-Bike, said he is confident Ruben will be one of the top students by the time end of six weeks.

Earn-A-Bike targets at-risk, low-income youth offenders, minorities and immigrant youths, but it welcomes anyone who wants to participate in the free program.

Ruben is close to the age group of students when dropout rates increase, between middle and high school. Widmann hopes to be able to reach students like him and help them see their potential before this happens.

Widmann used his training as an educator to create a system where students not only participate, but they learn skills to help them fix the bike if it breaks. At the end of their six weeks, each student gets to choose a bike from the collective's stable.

A recent grant will pay to provide locks, helmets, patches and lights for graduates in the next two years.

"We're not just giving them a fish that's going to break," Widmann said.

Email: wevans@deseretnews.com, Twitter: whitevs7

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