GIBSONVILLE — Stealing another child’s shoes, slapping a classmate or yelling at a teacher: any of these acts could get a student charged with a crime in North Carolina. But state leaders are advising that sending juvenile students to court for these types of behaviors often hurts more than helps.
Gov. Roy Cooper and North Carolina Chief Justice Cheri Beasley held a news conference at Eastern Guilford High School on Monday to announce the release of a new state guide to help courts, school districts and law enforcement work together to minimize school-based referrals to court for “minor misconduct.”
“In our schools, even minor offenses can cause class disruption, can frustrate teachers and keep other students from learning — that’s a problem that has to be addressed and we need to help them deal with that,” Cooper said. “ At the same time, we know that too many suspensions and expulsions and court appearances have a negative effect on children and on school safety.”
In 2017, as part of a broader bill, state lawmakers directed the state Administrative Office of the Courts to come up with policies and procedures for chief district court justices to organize School Justice Partnerships.
Some district judges have already begun partnerships, state leaders said. Guilford County was just starting to gear up.
“God bless his soul, Chief District Court Judge Tom Jarrell, who recently passed away, had already started having conversations with stakeholders in this community to form a School Justice Partnership and was on his way to convening his first meeting,” said LaToya Powell, assistant legal counsel of the Administrative Office of the Courts.
She said Jarrell was helping organize local leaders to attend Monday’s news conference.
Jarrell died unexpectedly on Aug. 3.
His enthusiasm and that of some Guilford County School Board members helped state leaders decide to hold the news conference in Guilford County, said William Lassiter, Deputy Secretary for Juvenile Justice with North Carolina Department of Public Safety. Plus, the governor was attending a school safety summit in Greensboro later in the day, so the logistics worked out.
Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras said she and Jarrell hadn’t spoken about the partnership, but she had prior insight about the model because she served as chief academic officer under Barbara Pulliam, former Clayton County (Georgia) schools superintendent.
Pulliam and Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske implemented a partnership in Clayton in 2004 that resulted in 83 percent decrease in referrals to juvenile court. That went along with a 43 percent decrease in referrals among youth of color and a 24 percent graduation rate increase, according to information provided in the guide. Their partnership has served as a model across the country.
Contreras said that Georgetown Law Center recently released a report that said people of all races see children of color as less innocent, more adult-like, and more responsible for their actions than their peers.
“Consequently, normal childhood behavior like disobedience, tantrums, and back talk is seen as a criminal threat when black and brown children do it,” she said.
Mecklenburg District Court Judge Elizabeth Trosch spoke about her own experiences with implementing a School Justice Partnership in Mecklenburg County.
Each partnership, she said, might target different offenses for which they want to develop alternatives to criminal charges. In Mecklenburg County, for a student caught with alcohol at school, rather than arresting them, they might be referred to either a drug education class or a substance abuse assessment. For a minor fight, students might be referred to mediation to hash through their issues.
These responses don’t take the place of a school punishment, it’s additional, she said. And there’s a strong incentive for students to comply with the alternatives, because they otherwise could be prosecuted.
School resource officers often say they don’t want to make an arrest or a court referral for minor crimes, but they don’t feel comfortable doing nothing, she said. The partnership gives them another option.