Multiple local agencies and individuals are formally agreeing to strengthen the working relationship between officials and work together to determine the best solution for minors who may find themselves in the juvenile court system.
This agreement is called the School-Justice Partnership — a statewide initiative managed by the North Carolina Judicial Branch’s Administrative Office of the Courts. According to this office, SJPs are designed to be a group of stakeholders from schools, law enforcement and the court system who together develop and implement effective strategies to address student misconduct within the school system and the community rather than by a referral to the juvenile justice system.
This is due in part to the “raise the age” law, that is planned to become effective on Dec. 1 of this year. The law will increase the jurisdiction of juvenile court for delinquency cases to include 16- and 17-year-olds.
On July 8, the Watauga County Board of Education discussed and subsequently approved a memorandum of understanding for the SJP with the boards of education in Avery, Madison, Mitchell and Yancey counties as well as law enforcement agencies in the counties, the District Court of the 24th judicial district, the District Attorney’s Office of the 35th district and the N.C. Department of Public Safety.
Watauga County Schools Superintendent Scott Elliott said those involved in the partnership first met back in the spring to discuss the SJP. This meeting included District Attorney Seth Banks, the superintendents of all five counties represented in the judicial district and Chief District Court Judge Ted McEntire. Those in attendance discussed what should be in the agreement, and Elliott said all five school systems are adopting the resolution.
These communities will join seven others in N.C. with SJPs, with the state’s goal of reaching all 100 counties.
The SJP solidifies the agreement to work together to prevent disruptive behavior in school and reduce referrals to juvenile court if they are not necessary, Elliott said. Sometimes officials may determine that counseling, work with school social workers or a referral to another agency could be the appropriate course of action rather than juvenile court.
“We don’t take lightly referrals to juvenile court,” Elliott said. “We don’t send cases that we would consider frivolous to juvenile court. When we make a referral to juvenile court it’s after consultation with law enforcement, juvenile court counselors and other school personnel when we’ve determined that the support and requirements of juvenile court is what the student and family needs at that time in order to change the behaviors.”
The MOU doesn’t necessarily reflect any change of practice or a new way of thinking toward a collaboration with the juvenile court system, but rather formalizes the working relationship the aforementioned officials have, Elliott said.
Banks said what he has found in the last five years as the district attorney is that the courts, school systems and law enforcement agencies school systems work and communicate well together.
“We found here in Watauga and my other four counties that essentially the team here were doing many of those things — discussing these cases and who was best suited under those circumstances to handle these cases,” Banks said. “Through these partnerships, our goal is to identify the stakeholder that is best suited to take on the task of intervening and trying to mediate and figure out solutions in these individual cases.”
Elliott, Banks and Michelle Miller — a juvenile court counselor in Watauga — all explained how agencies work together to determine the best course of action when a minor is presenting behavioral issues. Elliott said a student may be involved in one disciplinary event or ongoing discipline issues. Administrators approach the system’s school resource officers to discuss whether or not the disciplinary act is in fact a violation of a law. Court counselors are then consulted to determine if the referral to juvenile court is the best tactic to address the issue.
Miller said she will look over the report of the alleged act and make sure it contains legal sufficiency to create a juvenile petition. The court counselor later contacts the juvenile’s parents and schedules an intake conference. The counselor will meet with the juvenile, find out what occurred from their perspective and conduct a risk and needs assessment. The assessment identifies the risk the juvenile might have to continue to get into legal trouble and areas of need in that child’s life that if addressed would hopefully reduce the risk of that child coming back into the court system, Miller said.
From here, a court counselor may consult with the district attorney’s office if unclear on what charge to pursue. Typically, Miller said a court counselor will determine what happens next with the case — such as approving a complaint to be heard in front of juvenile court judge or potentially entering into a diversion contract/plan with the juvenile and their family.
Counselors can give input as to what terms of supervision the child might need to have and will monitor the child’s adherence to the court order. Court orders could potentially be community service, mediation between the offender and victim (the young person then has direct accountability to the person that may have been harmed by their actions), abide by curfews, be directed to not associate with victims or codefendants or evaluated for mental health or substance abuse needs.
Miller said court counselors try to use the option of diversion if at all possible. They typically will set up a plan for the young person to correct the mistakes or receive treatment and intervention services in the community.
“If we break or stop the cycle of criminal activity from ever starting, that’s the outcome we’re looking for,” Banks said. “We’re allowing the people on the ground to have input in fostering that dialogue.”
Elliott said the partnership will meet together as a district to begin looking at referral data to begin to evaluate trends such as referrals for certain kinds of behaviors or how as a region officials can take actions or provide additional support to address those issues. Locally, officials — such as school administrators, counselors, social workers, law enforcement and court representatives — will look at the data on a local level. This data could be what outcomes are coming out of juvenile court referrals, what kind of cases are going to juvenile court, what kind of cases are being deferred away from juvenile court and what kind of additional support or interventions are needed locally.