It was a lunchtime dispute that started with thrown food and ended with a pair of punches.

No blood was spilled in the teenage scuffle, but in the era of zero tolerance for violence, the Centennial High School students were cited for disorderly conduct.

For sophomore Tori Deshanne, one of those involved, that kind of blemish on his record loomed large in his mind. He wants to go into law enforcement.

Deshanne was one of the first teens in Anoka County who were able to admit having made a mistake, come clean to a jury of peers, make amends and avoid a rap sheet. The county attorney's office has partnered with a recent William Mitchell College of Law graduate to start a teen court for low-level, first-time offenders. The initial session was held at Centennial last fall, and the next will be next Tuesday at the county courthouse in Anoka.

Teen defendants stand trial. Other participants -- all teenagers, all sworn to confidentiality -- act as prosecutors, defense attorneys, jurors and bailiffs. Defendants admit guilt, agree to answer questions on the witness stand and carry out a sentence imposed by peers. Sentences can include community service, essay writing, apologies and serving as a participant in a future teen court.

Cleanse the record

It's a diversion program, so defendants who participate have their records wiped clean.

Prosecutors say diversion works. According to recent studies, four out of five teens who go through a diversion program stay out of the system for the next two years, said lawyer Michael Chmiel, supervisor of the juvenile division in the Anoka County Attorney's Office.

"Diversion as a whole is a very successful program. It does keep kids out of the court system and, hopefully, from committing other crimes," Chmiel said.

Teen court is one of a handful of diversion programs available to juvenile defendants who qualify. Generally, juvenile records are sealed in Minnesota, but Chmiel said he still counsels teens to avoid a conviction if they can.

"What if someone hacks into a record, or what if someone [in the Legislature] decides to make juvenile records public?" Chmiel asked rhetorically.

"I was happy. I didn't want a record," said Deshanne, who expressed remorse over the fight. "I was sorry that it happened. I am not a fighter. I don't like to fight people. I like all people and want to be friends with everybody."

Deshanne's mother, Capri Mikula, who watched her son appear before the teen court, gave the program high marks.

"They don't need records at this age. They are not fully developed and they do stupid things," said Mikula. "I think it's a better way to teach them instead of punishing them."

The teen jury sentenced Deshanne to write a letter of apology, serve 10 hours of community service and serve on future teen court juries. Deshanne completed his community service with Feed My Starving Children. He enjoyed it so much he went back to volunteer again.

"They did a really good job. They kept it professional," Mikula said. "They didn't come back with a lenient sentence."

Model for the program

Recent William Mitchell graduate Daniel Repka devised the teen court program while in law school. It's modeled after a program in Repka's hometown of Menasha, Wis. Repka, who participated as a teen prosecutor, said the experience inspired him to go to law school.

Repka, a student attorney at the Anoka County public defender's office who is preparing for the bar exam, is now overseeing the program for free. He has created governing rules and policies that have been approved by the prosecutor's office.

Offenses eligible for teen court diversion include shoplifting, disorderly conduct and underage consumption of alcohol. Defendants must make an admission of guilt and take the stand, but teens acting as prosecutors and defense attorneys are instructed not to dwell on details of the crime. Rather, they ask the defendant about their interests, whether they're remorseful and how they'll avoid this type of situation in the future.

"The questions are more geared toward character because we want to see how sorry they are," Repka said. "The defense tries to bolster their character."

Centennial High senior Kyle Bartholomay acted as a prosecutor at teen court. He has served as a teen juror. He'll act as prosecutor again this month. Bartholomay is a member of the mock trial team, so he enjoyed the courtroom experience.

He said the teenagers' attitudes, including how they're dressed, their level of sincerity and their involvement in activities and school, make a difference.

"One time a kid barely did anything wrong. We sympathized with the kid," Bartholomay said. "Everyone makes mistakes."

The first round of teen court at Centennial was so successful they're hosting the second session at the county courthouse, and this time, Anoka County Judge Daniel O'Fallon will preside over the hearings.

Repka said the program also promotes restorative justice -- allowing young offenders to repair the harm they've done.

"It encourages the teen[s] to realize the effect their actions have on the community," Repka said. "The community shows them what is fair and just consequences for their actions. Through peer scrutiny, we are able to put the teen back on track."

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804