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Sage Hill Students Serve as Peer Court Jurors

By Daniel Langhorne
An Orange County middle schooler pressured by friends walks into a national cosmetics retailer and attempts to shoplift but is stopped by security.

Besides the embarrassment of being caught, she avoids entering the juvenile justice system thanks to Peer Court, a diversion program coordinated by the Constitutional Rights Foundation of Orange County in partnership with Orange County Superior Court, law enforcement and prosecutors. First-time juvenile offenders get a second chance and high school students, including a handful from Sage Hill School, experience what it’s like to serve as jurors.

Juniors Sophia Zhou and Iris Lu joined the Political Advocacy for Youth service-learning group to learn about and get more involved in public policy. Last year, the group served as voters in a mock election hosted by the Orange County Registrar of Voters to train poll workers. They also learned about the federal criminal justice system during a visit to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and U.S. Marshals Service in Santa Ana. 

In 2023, Sophia was invited to a Zoom training meeting to learn important ground rules on confidentiality before she was assigned to a real case.

“I think it gave me a lot of insight and empathy for people who make mistakes,” Sophia said. 

In March, Sophia joined her first Peer Court proceeding via Zoom. A teenager appeared with her parent to address her shoplifting case. 

“We talked with them for a bit about the crime they committed and things that were related to the crime such as ‘what consequences have you faced at home?’ and ‘if your friends were there, do you think they’re a good influence?’” Sophia said. “There was definitely regret and she was willing to accept the consequences.”

Peer Court jurors then left for a breakout room and discussed potential consequences which can include community service, writing an apology letter, anger management counseling and classes on the criminal justice system.

“Because it involves students, it’s easier to relate to them and I think it’s nice to be able to give them a second chance,” Iris said. “I understand we’re kids and sometimes we do really dumb things. Maybe with the right amount of peer pressure, a lot of students would have done something similar.” 

While Sage Hill students have participated in Peer Court for many years, the Constitutional Rights Foundation (CRFOC) hosted a November training session just for a Sage Hill cohort so they could serve as jurors. Since then, every Peer Court session has had at least two Sage Hill students serving as jurors, said Michelle Antenesse, assistant program manager at CRFOC.

“Along with fellow students throughout Orange County, Sage Hill students are an integral part of the program, helping provide students with a second chance, assigning sanctions that make amends, while learning about our juvenile justice system,” Antenesse said.

Sophia sees her experience with the political advocacy service-learning group as both fulfilling and educational.

“It’s helped educate me on the rights we all have and the responsibilities we have as citizens, like jury duty and voting,” she said.

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Sage Hill School

Sage Hill School admits students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the School. The School does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national and ethnic origin in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship programs, and athletic and other School administered programs.