What is a Student Court?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A student court is a panel of students which comprise the judicial branch of a student government organization. Not all student governments have a student court, and the role of the student court varies, depending on the policies determined by the individual school. Student courts can be seen at all levels of education from elementary school to college, and they are especially common in schools that run along military lines, as courts of peers are especially popular in military justice systems.

A high school athlete may be forced to miss games or get kicked off the team for violations made in the classroom.
A high school athlete may be forced to miss games or get kicked off the team for violations made in the classroom.

The members of a student court may be elected by fellow students, or appointed by school officials or other branches of student government. In either case, they are selected on their merits, with members of a student court being known for impartiality, an ability to weigh and interpret evidence, and a willingness to enforce the letter of the law. Student courts may meet on a regular basis to discuss various judicial issue, or they may be convened for specific cases.

Investigations of Honor Code violations may be carried out by a student court.
Investigations of Honor Code violations may be carried out by a student court.

Student courts are designed to investigate their fellow students and to mete out punishments appropriately. The idea behind a student court is that a student body should be as self-regulating as possible, and rather than allowing punishments to be imposed by external parties such as school employees, students should be able to investigate and punish each other from within the framework of student government. This independent model of student government is designed to closely mirror the actual government outside the school, and to promote direct student involvement in issues which impact the school.

Investigations of Honor Code violations and violations of other school policies may be carried out by a student court, with the accused often being able to retain an advocate who helps him or her navigate the court system. Student courts also engage in conflict resolution, working to achieve amicable settlements to differences of opinion. Many of them also interpret school policies and bylaws, handing down rulings which can be used to enforce policies consistently. Issues like bullying, cheating, abuse, and a wide variety of other policy violations can be handled in a student court.

In an example of a case which might come before a student court, a high school athlete might be accused of cheating on a science test. The student court would hear the evidence in the case and decide whether or not the athlete is guilty, and, if so, what punishment should be meted out. The student court might have the power to suspend the athlete from school, to force the athlete to sit out several games, or to kick the athlete off the team, for example.

Student court may be used to address bullying and violence on campus.
Student court may be used to address bullying and violence on campus.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I am a member of my college's student court, and while I agree in part, I also disagree with some of what has been said here. I believe that student courts are not intrinsically problematic, but that some forms have more problems than others.

At the university where I attend, the undergraduate students are part of a student union (a "Community Union") which regulates and recognizes student organizations, funds student activities, manages elections and provides programming and a place for discussion within the community, as well as voices the concerns of the student body to the faculty and administration. The judicial branch (officially called the Judiciary) is responsible for recognizing and regulating student organizations and for overseeing the activities and checking the power of the other two branches: the Senate and the Elections Commission. The Senate funds student organizations, provides a venue for discussion, and voices student concerns to the faculty and administration. The Elections Commission manages student elections. There is also the Programming Board, which is a quasi-governmental organization that provides much of the general programming and events on campus. The Judiciary is tasked with overseeing these other activities, but it also has other functions.

It serves as the standing body for disciplinary complaints against any student enrolled at any school or college within the University. However, the panel that presides over this hearing is made up of two members of the Judiciary chosen at random and three faculty members or administrators chosen by the Dean of Student Affairs (or his designee). Thus, while the Judiciary definitely has a role in the process (e.g., by controlling two of the five votes on the panel) it doesn't have a majority of the votes, so its voice is moderated by those with more experience. Also, in cases of sexual assault or harassment, this panel does not meet at all and the proceedings are handled much more discreetly and without the involvement of other students.

Furthermore, any situations that occur in the dormitories are typically first handled by the Residential Life office, which can impose penalties up to and including permanent removal from university housing (such cases can then be referred to the Dean of Student Affairs, if necessary). The decisions of this office can be appealed to a completely separate (separate from the Judiciary) student court.

The main reason for the existence of the Judiciary is not to mete out disciplinary action, but rather to serve as a check on the power of the rest of the Union's government and to regulate student organizations. This is especially important since the Senate annually receives $1.5 million from the student activities fee that is assessed on every undergraduate student's bill. Given that students are in charge of so much money, it makes sense to have a separate body to check the Senate's power, especially since the Elections Commission has a narrow mandate and is appointed rather than elected (by a committee made up of members of the other branches of the government, as well as a student representative from one of the student-faculty committees (the one that oversees student life on campus).

I believe that this system works quite well and avoids many of the pitfalls expressed in other posts.


@jcraig - I agree completely. I feel there is no need for a school to have a student judiciary body to deal out punishment.

It is one thing to have a legislative body, like student senate to give recommendations to the school, but to deal out punishment to fellow students sounds so strange to me.

I really feel like these types of groups are unnecessary and as JimmyT said promotes favortism and could also be filled with young adults that do not know how to handle the power they possess.

To me it really sounds like that a student court could not exist in the public realm of schools, except maybe in regards to academic dishonesty that they send recommendations to the school about.

I really have to wonder if this is more of a private school thing and if so what types of schools have such courts?


@TreeMan - If it is like that at a college imagine what it is like at a high school. I really do not like that they let students rule whether or not someone should be expelled for multiple reasons, one of which could involve lawsuits.

I was also a Resident Assistant at a college and there was a stabbing on my floor. The college completely bypassed the student court because it was a testy situation and if the student court had kicked the student out without proper investigation the situation could have gone to trial in a six figure lawsuit if they were not to do something right in the procedure.

This right hear shows that the college did not totally trust the student court in such a manner and that is why there are few high schools anymore that have a student court, because of the fact that young adults need to deal with issues that could be testy and affect their fellow students lives.

There are administrative people at high schools and colleges that deal out punishment and deal with situations where a student court is not necessary, so why is there really any need to have a school judiciary body?


@JimmyT - I agree. I find it is a great thing that the college would allow the students to be involved in the process, but people have to realize that these students are still young adults and the majority of them do not have the life experience or understanding to make such a harsh ruling on a student or even know how to deal with that much power.

I was a Resident Assistant at a private college and I tried to get the Residence Life office to deal with as many issues as possible, because I knew it was never known what to expect at the student court hearings.

I really thought that they were harsh on athletes and dealt out unfair punishments and in some cases wrong rulings that I was the witness to! There was even one case where I was held in contempt of student court because I called them out on punishing a football player, that I was the only witness to and he was innocent!

I have a real problem with student courts, simply because it seems like the people that continually fill the seats on the court are people that are power hungry and do not know how to handle their power and make proper judgmental decisions.


I have to be honest I went to a small college where there was a student court and I really feel like it is a bad thing to have.

In the student court that was at my school, the students mostly dealt with cheating or situations that happened in the dorms, such as fights and drinking tickets. I really think this is a bad thing, especially at a small school, because there was a lot of favoritism and unfair rulings, which constituted only knowing who you knew among the students.

Despite this self regulation, the school even knew it was a bad idea to give the student court too much power as kicking someone out of school or dulling out a very harsh punishment is a bad thing, so the school would take the student courts recommendation for a harsh punishment, but not usually kick the student out of school, unless it were for something that would have happened anyway.

Point is, the school even knew favoritism could occur and they did not totally trust the student court on campus, which makes me question the purpose in the first place.

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