— Teen Court program offers valuable service to Jefferson County.
Ronda Lehman has worn many hats over the years—hospice nurse, expert witness, political candidate, clean water advocate, softball coach—and since November of 2013, she has added one more, coordinator of the Jefferson County Teen Court program.
Every Monday evening, Lehman oversees a group of Jefferson County teenagers in Charles Town. Some of these teens have found their way into the judicial system as defendants, while others act as volunteers to hone their public speaking ability, increase their knowledge of the legal world, and to simply offer their time for an important community service.
“Teen Court provides first-time offenders a way to pay their debt to the community for misdemeanor offenses,” Lehman explained. “The sentences are given by a jury of their true peers: teenagers. Along the way, it is our goal to help the teen back onto the ‘right path’ of success in school and in life.”
Lehman pointed out that the Teen Court doesn’t hear drug-related cases, and all those that are heard are at the recommendation of the Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney’s office. She said most cases involve an instance of disruption by the defendant in his or her school. Once the jury reaches a verdict, the defendant must fulfill the sentence that is handed down.
As indicated, those with pending juvenile charges are not the only teenagers who populate “Ms. Ronda’s” program. Many participants serve as jurors, and are assigned that duty as part of their sentences from having been a defendant in the program. Others fill the role of attorneys, both for the prosecution (the County) and for the defense, strictly on a volunteer basis.
Most Mondays are spent in the Teen Court offices, where participants spend time preparing for upcoming cases. During these sessions, they plan strategy, practice their opening and closing arguments, as well as the examination and cross-examination of witnesses.
Every so often, though, court is held at the Ranson Police Station. During these hearings, Charles Town attorney Kirk Bottner, of Bottner and Skillman law firm, acts as the judge, and the entire process proceeds much as would a regular court case.
One volunteer will act as court clerk, and call the cases. Two attorneys represent the prosecution, and two serve as defense attorneys. Opening arguments will be presented, and witnesses are sworn in and questioned. Cross-examination of the witnesses and the defendant are permitted, and closing arguments are made. Upon conclusion of the hearing, the jury will retire to deliberate, and will return with a unanimous verdict. That verdict is final, and is a binding decision, meaning the sentence must be fulfilled. Sentences often involve a certain number of community service hours and terms serving on the Teen Court jury.
County Impact Across the Board
Linda Romero, a retired federal court employee from Harpers Ferry, provides advice during the whole process.
“I mainly try to share what I know about courtroom procedures and practices with the kids, and try to give them honest but encouraging feedback as they work on preparing their cases,” she noted. “I also take notes during trials and share what I observe. Ronda also asked me to go into the jury deliberations to make sure they are properly conducted, but the kids reach their own verdict. I just encourage everyone to weigh in before the verdict is reached.”
Not all teen attorneys began their time with the Jefferson County Teen Court in that capacity. Lehman points to Trevon Ruff—who first arrived in the Teen Court as a defendant while in middle school—as a powerful testament to the argument that the system provides positive results. Once completing his service obligation as required, he asked Lehman if he would be permitted to remain on as a volunteer. Today, Ruff serves as one of the teen attorneys, and acts as an exemplar of the benefits of the Teen Court.
Ruff has spoken before the Charles City Town Council, and has appeared on Shepherd University’s campus radio station extolling the benefits of the Court. He believes his continued volunteer work with the program has cemented his desire to remain “… on the right path” for the future. He also feels his public speaking has greatly improved thanks to his participation.
Another of Lehman’s volunteers, Jane Cabbiness, spent four years serving as an attorney, and hopes to aid in establishing a teen court program in Flagler County, Florida, where she’ll be attending college this fall.
Bottner also praises the virtues of the program, which exists in Morgan and Monongalia Counties, as well. “I think the community at large needs to know that there is a program out there that allows kids who are charged with minor offenses to perform community services,” he remarked. “In doing so, they learn about the legal system and, in turn, if they are successful, their charges are dismissed.”
Bottner also fills the role of judicial advisor to the Court, which is a requirement. “In that role, I attend the training sessions every Thursday and act as judge every time we have court,” he said.
Bottner and Romero are not the only volunteers who supplement Lehman’s efforts with the program. She’s found a great deal of support from both the judicial community and the county’s various law enforcement offices, as well as the county at large.
All of their efforts would be for naught had the United Way of the Eastern Panhandle not stepped forward to get the ball rolling.
“The United Way of the Eastern Panhandle was the original starting point,” said Lehman. “They supplied the seed money and initial funding to get the program off the ground. Since then, that money has been paid back, and we are completely funded by the five-dollar teen court fee on all tickets given in the county.”
Bottner added that he believes the five dollars is being “well spent” by directing it to the Teen Court program.
Lehman ensures the program is supplemented, above and beyond the judicial focus, with guest speakers and other services to those teens involved.
“We offer special classes from time to time to broaden the base knowledge of our defendants,” she said. “For example, representatives from the Jefferson County NAACP came in and spoke with the kids about their plight over the years, and what it was like to be black in Charles Town forty years ago.”
A math tutor has also been made available, and a guest lecturer has discussed the workings of the brain and ways to engage both of its sides.
Lehman also points to a unique phenomenon she has found during her time leading the program. “There is a lot of ‘positive’ peer pressure that is applied in Teen Court,” she emphasized. “This pressure to do better and not to try or do stupid things gets kids thinking about their actions, and the consequences of those actions.”
While the defendants and volunteers benefit from the existence of the program, the larger Jefferson County community has certainly done likewise through the community service requirements of the defendants who move through the Court. While Lehman and her board of directors are always looking for additional community service projects, they have already partnered with a long list of local groups, including the Jefferson County Animal Welfare Society, the Middleway Volunteer Fire Department, the Boys and Girls Club of Jefferson County, the Blue Ridge Volunteer Fire Department, the Shepherdstown Visitors’ Center, and the Jefferson County Community Ministries.
Lehman believes, as the program continues to grow, so, too, will the opportunities for additional community involvement, as well as the positive return to Jefferson County.By H.S. Leigh Koonce