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FHS is new Peer Court site

Starting next year, juveniles who break the law in Dakota County may have to face a jury of their peers right here in Farmington.

Farmington High School was recently selected as a new host site for Dakota County’s juvenile court program, Peer Court. It’s an accountability program used by the Dakota County Attorney’s office to sentence first-time offenders of crimes like disorderly conduct, vandalism, and even theft.

Dakota County has seven host sites, according to Monica Jensen, spokesperson for the county attorney’s office. The first site to hold Peer Court was Hastings, back in 2001. Simley High School in Inver Grove Heights was one of the seven host sites but chose not to participate this year, Jensen said.

Farmington school resource officer Andrew Van Dorn jumped at the chance to make Farmington High School a host site and applied. FHS was subsequently chosen as the newest host site.

Van Dorn is excited to have the opportunity to bring Peer Court to FHS. He’s referred a few students to Peer Court in the past, so he’s familiar with the program. He likes what it can do.

“The long and the short of it is, a 14-year-old is a 14-year-old. They’re impulsive. They’re trying to figure out the social dynamic and where they fit into it. Sometimes the school consequences aren’t enough, but the legal consequences are too much,” Van Dorn said. “That’s where Peer Court is a really great option.”

Peer Court

Even though the program is called Peer Court, at no time does a student charged with a crime actually appear before other students from his or her own school. The student’s full name isn’t given, nor is his or her age or grade.

“When we host it here in Farmington, we’ll never see Farmington cases,” Van Dorn said. “We’re very aware of things like data privacy and social stigma. It would be unfair to have your dirty laundry aired out before your peers in your own school.”

But students do appear before other students in Peer Court.

If a student is caught fighting, for example, he or she could face disorderly conduct charges in a juvenile court. If it is a first-time offense, Van Dorn said, the student may be eligible to participate in Peer Court, rather than be fully charged and prosecuted.

The student would have to admit to the act and essentially plead guilty to the arresting officer — who would likely be Van Dorn if this is something that happens at the high school. They have the right to read his police report, and they have to agree with the facts presented.

If the student admits guilt, Van Dorn can process that individual as a candidate for Peer Court.

The student appears before a jury of students in grades 9-12. Because the student has already admitted guilt, the jury’s duty is to evaluate the facts and determine what kind of sentence the student has to carry out.

The jury is about 10 members strong. They have the right to question the student and the student’s parent or guardian if any are present. They can ask questions about what kinds of grades the student earns, whether the parent approves of the student’s social group, and so on.

Once they are finished questioning the student, the jury goes into a separate room to consider options. A Dakota County attorney is present to give them advice, but it is the jury of peers who determines the actual sentence. Then, they come back and give the student his or her sentence.

If the student does not follow the sentencing guidelines, the charges originally brought up against them become real and attach to his or her record.

“It’s so cool. It’s like the complete embodiment of what I see my role as in the school — the criminal justice system meets an educational experience,” Van Dorn said.

Van Dorn plans to work with the FHS mock trial team and Peers for Peers students to build a base of potential jurors for Peer Court. FHS will host two to three court sessions each year.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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