Chief District Court Judge J. Calvin Hill, supported by all the district court judges of Judicial District 28 (Buncombe County), created an opportunity for local court, school, law enforcement, juvenile justice and county officials to safely sign a School Justice Partnership (SJP) Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on March 18 while practicing social distancing. The stakeholders to the MOU have been meeting over the last couple of years to discuss and consider best practices that may help reduce school-based referrals of youth to the court for minor misconduct that does not pose a threat to the safety and welfare of others. A formal ceremony will take place at a later date when it is safe to gather.
“It was important to proceed with the signing of this MOU because the urgency of helping our youth stay in school so they may have opportunities to become thriving adults could not be delayed by the current community health concerns,” said Judge Hill. “I look forward to offering a more formal ceremony later this year.”
The School Justice Partnerhip offers a chance for stakeholders to shine a light on programs that work at school while helping manage the number of juveniles referred to the court system.
Buncombe County's designated family court and juvenile courts are part of that system. The presiding judges of both courts voiced their support for the MOU and worked with Chief District Court Judge Hill to ensure the MOU addressed the specific needs of the community and provided a framework for accountability and data collection.
“We are grateful to see our community’s commitment to our youth,” said Judge Hill. “We appreciate the schools’ willingness to address these issues and law enforcement’s willingness to keep our communities safe in a way that also meets youth where they are.”
In North Carolina, school-based referrals make up about 40% of the referrals to the juvenile justice system. Most of these referrals are for minor, nonviolent transgressions. In the 2016-2017 school year, only 8% of school-based referrals were for serious offenses.
Suspension and expulsion increase the risk that students will drop out of school, repeat a grade or engage in future delinquent conduct. A single suspension triples the likelihood that a child will enter the juvenile justice system, which itself increases the likelihood of negative outcomes, especially as involvement in the system deepens. Confinement in a juvenile facility, for example, increases the risk that a youth will be rearrested as an adult. For some children, a school-based referral can lead to a permanent criminal record that creates barriers to college financial aid, employment, housing and military eligibility.
Chief district court judges across North Carolina are working with community stakeholders to implement School Justice Partnerships in all 100 counties as a result of the state’s Raise the Age law, which increased the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 16 to 18. The legislation, which became effective December 1, 2019, authorizes the development of SJPs in each county with a goal of reducing in-school arrests, suspensions and expulsions. SJPs have been established in numerous counties. Additional counties or judicial districts are currently developing School Justice Partnerships.
The School Justice Partnership is a group of community stakeholders who work together to establish specific guidelines for school discipline in a way that minimizes suspensions, expulsions and school-based referrals to court for minor student misconduct.
Currently, many students are suspended, expelled and referred to court for minor misconduct which produces harmful outcomes for youth and their communities. Students who are suspended and expelled are more likely to repeat a grade, drop out of school and engage in higher levels of disruptive behavior. A single suspension also triples the likelihood that a student will enter the juvenile justice system. These negative outcomes disproportionately impact certain students, including youth of color and students with disabilities, who are more likely to be suspended, expelled and referred to court than their peers.
SJPs across the nation have produced better outcomes for students. Judge Steven Teske’s program in Clayton County, Georgia, known as the “Clayton County School Referral Reduction Protocol,” resulted in a 67.4% decrease in referrals to juvenile court, a 43% decrease in referrals of youth of color to juvenile court, and a 24% increase in graduation rates. Similar programs in Texas and Connecticut also have experienced positive results.