Teens listen to to volunteer Teen Court judge Jay Printz. (Photo by Pablo Lastra)
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
How much public service is there in sitting through council meetings?
By PABLO LASTRA
It’s 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night. Do you know where your children are? If they’ve been through Teen Court, chances are they’re at Fort Worth City Council. This upsets Kyev Tatum.
Tatum says that he has seen teen-agers at city council meetings on two occasions without supervision or transportation back home. The reason? Teen-agers who have to do community service can earn double credit if they attend a council meeting or perform other services for council member Becky Haskin. The councilwoman, who was the local Teen Court volunteer of the year in 1999 and 2000, didn’t return Fort Worth Weekly’s calls seeking comment.
Don’t know about Teen Court? If you aren’t a teen, or a parent of one, you may not have heard of it. Think Law and Order meets Saved by the Bell. Teen Court is a legally binding alternative to the regular court system for young people ages 10 to 17 who have been issued Class C citations for such minor infractions as curfew violations, traffic tickets, or possession of alcohol or small amounts of drugs. Teens also serve as defense attorneys, prosecutors, and juries (the judge, usually a volunteer attorney, is an adult). The court determines the severity of the violation and assigns a number of community service hours for the defendant to perform instead of paying a fine. In addition, defendants must pay the court costs and agree to serve as Teen Court jurors in the future.
The idea, according to Peggy Calliham, president of the Teen Court Association of Texas, is for teens to “find out that their peers don’t think their actions are too cool and to spend time and effort taking responsibility for their mistakes instead of having their parents pay their fine.”
At a city council meeting last summer, Tatum said that he saw a group of teen-agers looking bored. He asked them what they were doing at the meeting. They replied they were working their Teen Court community service hours with Becky Haskin.
Tatum, who was council member Donavan Wheatfall’s campaign advisor, offered to take the teen-agers home and told them they could earn their community service hours working with Wheatfall, if they wanted.
“They asked me if they’d get double time, and that’s when I found out Becky was giving them two for one,” he said.
Fort Worth Teen Court coordinator Susan Wolf said that she doesn’t want young people in the program to stay out past 8 p.m., and that double hours are usually reserved for special events. She said that teen-agers who go through the court compete with service-minded young people for a limited number of community service opportunities, so that in some cases double-time assignments make sense. “Some assignments get double time, usually one-time events,” she said. “A lot of teens worked Mayfest recently. They got double credit. The YMCA Turkey Trot run on Thanksgiving is triple time. I figure if kids are spending Thanksgiving doing community service, they deserve the triple time.”
By comparison, teens who volunteer with Haskin, the District 4 council representative, can earn double time by attending a council meeting to learn about the political process and then writing an essay about it. Also, teens can go around with Haskin on the weekend to help pick up trash. “Becky Haskin takes the teens out on community service on Saturdays,” said Wolf. “They plant flowers and clean out empty lots. She’s the council member who’s most involved in Teen Court.”
Wolf said teen-agers have received double time working for Haskin for as long as she can remember. “Because Becky donates her time and tries to take as many teens as she can, she gives double credit,” she said. “It’s very nice of her to do this. She’s wonderful.”
Tatum said he doesn’t think giving teens double time is sending the right message and that the young people did not seem to be getting much out of the council meeting. “She had them sitting around on a school night [even though] many of them are having to do community service for curfew violations,” he said.
Tatum said the meeting ended around 10 p.m., by which time city buses had stopped running. The curfew for minors in Fort Worth is 11 p.m. on weeknights. “I think somebody should be responsible at some point,” he said. “These are the kids who need help that their parents sometimes don’t provide. Somebody needs to step up.”
Wolf said that Haskin has the teens complete a worksheet at the meetings and checks on them to see if they’re paying attention. She said that transportation is the parents’ responsibility.
Norman Bermes, an Eastside activist, said that he has also saw the teen-agers at city council in January. “It was late; they were waiting for their parents,” he said. “They were there supposedly to see government in action, but I wonder how much of it they really got. I don’t know if it benefits kids in junior high or high school to see a meeting and write an essay about it.”
In another instance, Bermes said that he saw teens doing community service for Haskin in February, on the day the “crime tax” renewal was on the ballot. Bermes served as a polling place judge at the East Regional library polling station, and Haskin asked him to explain the voting process to the group of teen-agers. Afterward, he saw them sitting in the lobby of the library and asked them what they had been doing. He said the teens told him they had been going around the Woodhaven neighborhood looking for code violations that they then reported to Haskin. “They were just driving around looking for things that were wrong so that she could turn them in to the city code department,” he said. “What are you teaching the children, for crying out loud?”
Wolf said that she would “get to the bottom” of this allegation and that if Haskin had the teens looking for code violations, it would not qualify as community service.
The origins of teen courts are hazy, but the Grand Prairie Teen Court, started in 1976, seems to have been one of the first in existence. Since then, such courts have sprung up all over the country, and today there are more than 1,000 teen courts in 48 states, including at least 55 in Texas. In Fort Worth, the Junior League started Teen Court in October 1987. The program is a partnership of nonprofit groups, with some public funding and contributions from individuals. The city provides the courtroom and money for two staffers, while the rest of the budget comes from donations.
Program brochures state that about 2,300 teenagers participated in the Fort Worth Teen Court program and performed around 132,000 cumulative hours of community service at nonprofit agencies throughout Tarrant County.
Calliham, the Teen Court Association president, said that giving teens double time for certain assignments is “not standard practice” and that attending city council meetings may not be the most productive use of their time.
“What I want is for kids to give of their time by helping the community,” she said. “That’s why I don’t do essays or give double or triple time. A fine is a fine is a fine.”
Jean Griffin, who was the first coordinator of the Fort Worth Teen Court, thinks city council meetings could be educational. “If it’s something where it’s a learning process for the kids, I think it’s OK,” she said. “Many kids go through school not knowing how their community works and how their votes count. I think the worst thing is when parents pay the fine and everyone is on their merry way.”
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