PW profile: Deputy Juvenile Justice Secretary draws from painful personal past to help kids in the system succeed

PW profile: Deputy Juvenile Justice Secretary draws from painful personal past to help kids in the system succeed

Billy Lassiter, Deputy Director of Juvenile Justice, shows off the artwork his daughters created for his office. He is an advocate for the kids in the state who are caught in the justice system and worked tirelessly for more than a decade to get Raise the Age legislation passed. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

When Billy Lassiter was 12 years old, he sat in the front row of one of his seventh grade classes surrounded by about 30 students who had their sights set on picking apart their substitute teacher’s strange dialect.

He still remembers that it was a Thursday afternoon; it was sixth period and at the end of the day, so the teacher was growing quite tired of the heckling. To try and deflect the negative attention, the teacher cracked a joke about Lassiter having Albinism, a genetic disorder that causes the skin, hair and eyes to have little or no color.

“That led to other kids in the class jumping onto that, of course,” Lassiter said. “Because he had started it, he couldn’t really control it after that point. For like 10 minutes, it was just kids joking about me. You can take so much, but I got to the point where I just couldn’t take it anymore. My reaction was just to get up and get out of there, and I thought I would make it out before I started to cry, but I didn’t quite make it out that door before that happened.”

He was a small kid, under 100 pounds, with white hair, pale skin and light, icy eyes with a pink pigment – he looked different from the other kids. When he made it out to the hallway after the bullying, he stopped for a moment to think about what he should do next. Tears still in his eyes, he ran out of the building and then all the way home – several miles from the school.

Just as he got home, his mom was pulling into the driveway.

“The first reaction out of my mom’s mouth, as a teacher and as a parent, was ‘somebody at that school is getting fired today,’” Lassiter recalled. “I just remember the anger that was on her face from hearing the experience, and she went inside to call the school and tell them we’re coming over there to have a conversation.”

He described his mother flipping through the phone book for what felt like several minutes searching for the number to the school before suddenly stopping and looking up at him.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “I think the thought that popped into her head was, ‘wait a second, there’s something more important here – more important than that teacher or the other kids in that class. That’s my child sitting in front of me, and let’s have a conversation, let me hear more about what happened.’”

Billy Lassiter, Deputy Director of Juvenile Justice, was born with Albinism, an inherited disease characterized by a substantially lower rate of melanin production, which meant his hair, skin and eyes were very pale and he inherited vision problems. He was bullied about having the condition as a child, but persevered and now helps children in the Juvenile Justice system. (Photo provided by Billy Lassiter)

Lassiter told his mom exactly what happened and how it made him feel. Lynne Lassiter didn’t typically give in to the “whims” of emotion that came with her son growing up a little different – after all, she wanted him to be tough enough to fight back and get ahead – but that evening she listened patiently for hours before weighing in.

“She finally looked at me and said, ‘are you done? Because if you are, I’ve got something really important to tell you,’” Lassiter said of his mother. “I said, ‘well if it’s really important, I guess I need to hear it.’ She said, ‘you’re special, God made you this way for a reason; I don’t know what that reason is but you are special. Yeah, you have really white hair and really white skin, and you don’t have the best vision in the whole wide world, but people are going to remember you too.’”

His mom turned out to be right. But it’s not Lassiter’s white hair and pale eyes that people will remember him for – it’s his steadfast passion and dedication to advocating for underserved kids in the juvenile justice system that will define his legacy, and his determination to help the type of youth who once hurt him.

The early years

Lassiter has been the Deputy Secretary of Juvenile Justice at the North Carolina Department of Public Safety since 2014, but he’s been an advocate for children for 22 years.

He was born and raised in Raleigh and attended Millbrook High School, where he became good friends with Bryan Greene, a fellow student in the drama program. Lassiter’s background of being victimized by other children is part of what’s made him so successful in his career, but it was his relationship with Greene and his experience of losing him to gun violence that propelled him into the work.

Greene was shot and killed when he was 16 years old while he was watching a fight near Millbrook. The fight had started at school, but the administration told the kids involved to take it across the street to the Exchange Park.

Greene was one of hundreds of students who gathered at the park to watch the fight. A young man who wasn’t a student brought a gun, shot it into the air and the bullet came back down and hit Greene.

The tragic loss sent shock waves through the school, and it’s something Lassiter has never forgotten.

“I think it created a feeling of a place that’s supposed to be safe not being safe anymore,” he said. “A school is supposed to be a sanctuary where you can feel safe to learn but also express your views and express your feelings – it felt like that was taken away from that one incident. … That’s what really influenced me to go into the field.”

The violence precipitated the creation of the original Center for the Prevention of School Violence and spurred Gov. Jim Hunt to put together a task force to look at school safety issues.

Lassiter was graduated from high school a year later, enrolled at NC State University and got involved interning at the Center as a way to get more information about the type of violence that led to his friend’s death.

He spent 10 years at the Center and eventually became the director there. Most of his work focused on prevention – both when it came to violence and bullying. During that time, a lot of his work started to “co-mingle” with the work of the Department of Juvenile Justice.

“Being a kid that grew up Albino, I got bullied a lot, so I was one of those kids that got victimized by other kids that just didn’t understand me because I was different,” Lassiter said. “What I found, really interestingly, once I started working with Juvenile Justice was that the kids that were in our system, they weren’t these super predators; they were often victims of abuse and bullying themselves.”

He started telling his story at school assemblies, and it resonated. Over time, he started trying to figure out what was driving kids to violence and committing crimes. It clicked when he read a statistic about how nearly 75 percent of kids who committed major school violence said the reason they did it was because of being bullied at school.

“That made a lasting impression on me, because you think about these people being awful people, but what drove them to do those types of incidents in the beginning?” Lassiter asked. “And how do we as a state and a society be more preventative and proactive in what we do not to create that person who’s willing to take that step?

“That’s what really got me focused on the Juvenile Justice system, because I feel like there’s a way that we can do that in this system, that we can really dive in and look at the root cause of the problem of what’s driving a kid to the system and put in place programs and interventions that are going to help those kids not become those kids that perpetrate those awful incidents in school.”

A heart for the population

Billy Lassiter says his experiences as a child, including being bullied for having Albinism and losing a friend in high school to gun violence, have fueled his passion to help kids in Juvenile Justice live successful lives. (Photo provided by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety)

Lassiter, 42, started working at the Department of Juvenile Justice when the Secretary at the time, George Sweat, asked him to come on board to help with messaging.

There was an audit of juvenile justice facilities in 2003 and the report was “demoralizing,” Lassiter said, noting that the buildings were decrepit and unsafe and that the kids in the system weren’t getting the services they needed.

“The department took that as a call to action that we can do better and we needed to do better,” Lassiter said.

The department started researching other juvenile justice models across the country and found that smaller facilities closer to kids’ homes that focused on intervention provided the best outcomes. They started trying to sell that to the General Assembly, but it wasn’t easy because it required a lot of money.

That’s when Sweat asked Lassiter to get involved.

“He knew I had a heart for that population,” Lassiter said.

The General Assembly was receptive and Juvenile Justice got four brand new facilities built in 2008; they went from detention centers that used to hold 300 to 400 kids to the largest one now holding only 96 (though most only have 44 beds).

Lassiter’s work led him to working with community services and he became the Director of Community Programs. He rebid all the department’s contracts, established new residential facilities for kids across the state and redoubled education and therapeutic efforts.

The Youth Development Center population dropped 83 percent over the past decade from 1,400 young people to about 179 currently.

“Those kids are still here, we’re just serving them in more appropriate placements and actually are meeting the needs of the risks and needs factors that they’re showing,” Lassiter said.

Lassiter has made it his personal mission to create better outcomes for kids in the juvenile justice system by making sure they are matched to the proper programs to address their needs. In fact, one of the next big things the department is working on is purchasing a new assessment program called the Youth Assessment Screening Inventory (YASI).

The program will be used in conjunction with an in-house assessment program the department created with the UNC School of Social Work and a resource guide with 2,500 different types of programs for juveniles across the state.

“Not every program is made for a gang-involved kid; not every program is made for a kid that’s on drugs,” Lassiter said. “And so we want to make sure we’re matching the right kid with that right program.”

The department will also start tracking the outcomes of kids in the system based on their educational and economic goals, not just recidivism.

“For years, Juvenile Justice has been measured on one thing: recidivism, which is important, obviously, we don’t want kids to get in trouble again, but there’s different levels of recidivating,” Lassiter explained. “If you jay walk one time after you’ve been committed, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you failed. We want to look at: Did you graduate? Did you get a job? Is it a job where you’re being successful and happy in? Are you still involved with [the Department of Social Services] after you leave us or have you found a long term place to live?

“There are lots of other outcomes – did your behavior change, are you off drugs; those are all important things that we need to look at. We shouldn’t be judging our programs just on one singular factor: Did you make another mistake ever? The question is ‘did you make another mistake, did you learn from that one too and did you get where we wanted you to get eventually later in life?’”

His excitement about getting kids help so that they can lead successful lives is palpable. He is giddy when he talks about things like researching the minimum age of prosecution and his face lights up when he starts discussing how he works personally to impact the lives of children in the system.

Sitting in his office last week, he circled back around to the story about his mother comforting him after his teacher and classmates made fun of him.

“If my mom wasn’t home that afternoon, I don’t know what I would have done,” he said. “I was angry enough that I was ready to hurt somebody or hurt myself. I think about these young people that make stupid mistakes just because they’re driven by that anger that they’re maybe feeling for a moment because of a situation that they’re in and how we as a society would want to treat those kids.

“Now, when I talk to other kids, I talk about how they’re special, and if you haven’t figured that out yet, let me help you figure it out. What is it about you that makes you special? What is the thing that’s going to drive you? What are you interested in doing with your life? That conversation still drives me today. There’s a reason why I am the way I am and the things I had to go through in my life. There’s a reason why those things happened to me, and I truly believe it’s so I can be an advocate for those same types of kids – the kids that have had it tough, that have been victims, that have been abused, that have been through situations that no kid should have to go through – and figure out how we make those kids be successful, give them a voice and someone that’s going to speak up for them.”

Raising the age

Billy Lassiter spoke last year at a Juvenile Justice conference. He has been working the last few months to implement Raise the Age legislation, which went into effect Dec. 1. (Photo provided by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety)

One of the ways Lassiter has given a voice to children in North Carolina is by working tirelessly to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction so that 16- and 17-year-olds are no longer treated like adults in the criminal justice system.

“Raise the Age” legislation had been a dream of children’s advocates for over a century and it was finally implemented in December. Lassiter played no small part in pushing for that to happen, and it is an accomplishment that still fuels his work today.

“It is remarkable to see the population that has decreased; juvenile crime has decreased, and we’re getting better results than we’ve ever gotten as far as recidivism rates on our population,” he said. “How many other agencies in state government can say, I’ve reduced juvenile crime, I’ve reduced the population in our facilities and I’ve done it all while you’ve reduced our budget?”

Lassiter’s continued work on Raise the Age and juvenile justice reform generally has not gone unnoticed.

“It’s important that we work to keep our state safe and implement common sense criminal justice reforms that give young North Carolinians the opportunity to lead productive and fulfilling lives,” said Gov. Roy Cooper in an email “Deputy Secretary Lassiter has worked tirelessly toward these goals and our state is better for it.”

One of Lassiter’s colleagues, Cindy Porterfield, Director of Juvenile Community Programs, also highlighted his relentlessness in making Raise the Age happen.

“He possesses a passion for this work and is gifted with the skill of being able to approach diverse groups, communicate with them effectively, and negotiate in a manner that leaves all parties are satisfied,” she said. “This holds so true in the effort and energy that it took to move our state to pass legislation for raising the juvenile age of jurisdiction.

Porterfield continued:

For decades there has been well-known understanding that raising the juvenile age of jurisdiction was needed in North Carolina – the research supported it and strong child advocacy groups touted the benefits associated with this legislation. This legislation, however, was not able to come to full fruition until Billy took on the leadership role for North Carolina’s Juvenile Justice Division. Billy is a visionary and possesses the skills to convince and sway folk’s opinions, even polarizing ones, and it was with his passion and vision, that this bi-partisan legislation was passed. His tireless drive and compassion for the youth of North Carolina were seen as he led by example – crisscrossing the state, touching 100 counties and 30 Judicial Districts to advocate for this legislative change.”

Lassiter’s mother gushed about watching him grow from his first job to where he is now.

“He’s just taken that ball and ran with it,” Lynne Lassiter said in a phone interview. “I’m sure there could have been some other career paths in life, but this kind of matches who he is and what he’s about. I couldn’t be prouder of Billy.”

‘We can still do better’

Lynne Lassiter described herself as “soft-hearted,” but said she always wanted her son to be strong, so she used some tough love when times got difficult.

“I think that’s one of the ways he learned to get over prejudices,” Lynne Lassiter said of her son. “He learned very, very early on that appearances weren’t always the key point.”

And now he is trying to teach other adults that same lesson.

“Just because we’re Juvenile Justice, this kid is no different than the kid you have in DSS; this is no different than the kid you have in the education system – they’re all alike,” Lassiter said. “This kid made a bad mistake, and most of the time, if they could take it back, they would.

“It’s really about helping adults understand, it’s not just about money. It’s about are you willing to come and volunteer with us? We’re looking for them – are you willing to mentor a child? Helping people understand what does a profile of this kid look like – what is it they need to be successful and how can you support that as an adult and make that happen?”

Lassiter also credits his co-workers with helping him to do the same and inspiring him to continue making progress.

“I work with great people,” Lassiter said. “People are attracted to Juvenile Justice because they have a passion for working with kids, and they have a passion for working with kids that are not the easiest ones to work with; the ones that really need the help. That passion and motivation they have, it often feeds me and I like to return that to them as much as I possibly can.”

As for what he wants to do for the rest of his life – juvenile justice remains the biggest part of that picture. He made a promise to his staff that if Raise the Age was passed, he would see it all the way through implementation, and he’s enjoying that work for now.

He offered that he may want to run for office one day – but maintained that’s at least 10 years away.

“I’ve got to get my girls through college first,” he joked.

Lassiter has two daughters, ages 14 and 11, and a wife who works as a speech therapist at an elementary school. Their support also keeps him motivated, he said.

There’s still a lot of work to be done, but Lassiter is excited about the direction Juvenile Justice is headed in.

“The vision I have for Juvenile Justice is the right service for the right child at the right time, and we’ve gotten better and better and better at doing that, but we can still do better,” he said.