District Court Judges Tessa Sellers and Kristina L. Earwood convened local court, school, law enforcement, juvenile justice and county officials from Cherokee, Clay, Haywood and Graham counties last week for ceremonial signings of the School Justice Partnership Memorandums of Understanding (MOU). The parties to the MOU opened a forum 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.
“We are very pleased here in North Carolina that we raised the age at which young people can be charged in criminal court as an adult,” said Supreme Court of North Carolina Chief Justice Cheri Beasley. “We know that we can further increase the likelihood of success for these young people by reducing the number of referrals into our criminal justice system and are excited about empowering local leaders working together collaboratively and giving our young people improved opportunities for success.”
Community leaders who spoke at the signing ceremony on March 12 in Haywood County at the Haywood County Schools Education Center in Clyde included:
- District Court Judge Kristina L. Earwood
- Haywood County Schools Superintendent Dr. Bill Nolte
- Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher
Additional community stakeholders in attendance included Chief District Court Judge Richard Walker, Canton Police Chief Shawn Gaddis, Assistant District Attorney Jaclyn Helton, Chief Court Counselor Dianne Whitman, and representatives from Meridian Behavioral Health Services.
“I cannot tell you how impressed and in awe I am of all our community members who have worked so diligently over the last year and a half,” said Judge Kristina Earwood. “There is a passion and dedication to juveniles that we share and those of us with children in Western North Carolina are blessed to have them in our communities working so hard to make it better.” Judge Earwood added, “After this experience, I am positive that we are lucky to raise our children here with people who truly love and care about all of our mountain youth.”
Community leaders in attendance at the signing ceremony on March 13 in Cherokee County at Andrews High School included:
- District Court Judge Tessa Sellers
- Cherokee County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeana Conley
- Cherokee County Juvenile Court Counselor James Jollah
Additional community stakedholders in attendance included Chief District Court Judge Richard Walker, District Court Judge Kristina Earwood, Assistant District Attorney Jaclyn Helton, Chief Court Counselor Dianne Whitman and representatives form the Cherokee, Clay, and Graham County Department of Social Services, and Mountain Projects Mountain Strong Prevention.
“As a lifelong Western North Carolinian, I was so proud that our local schools and leaders took on this challenge and rose to the occasion,” said District Court Judge Tessa Sellers.
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 27 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.