GIBSONVILLE — The tobacco fields near East Guilford High School are reminders of bygone times when getting into trouble at school meant a trip to the principal’s office, and maybe a phone call to a child’s parents.
A paddling by the principal, now banned throughout North Carolina, and a severe scolding at home were about the worst outcomes for a student who misbehaved.
But the old ways of disciplining children at school are long gone. The most dramatic changes commenced about two decades ago when school districts began to adopt “zero-tolerance” policies for bad behavior.
Under zero tolerance policies, seemingly minor infractions committed at school can lead to an arrest and a court date, and that’s especially true if the offender is a child of color.
Cheri Beasley, Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, wants to change how school discipline is handled by encouraging communities to form judge-driven “School Justice Partnerships” (SJPs) .
The SJPs, made up of law enforcement officials, judges, district attorneys juvenile court counselors, teachers and school administrators, establish guidelines for school discipline in a way that minimizes suspensions, expulsions and school-based referrals to court for misconduct.
“The truth is that school discipline has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, and the thing we want do is to make sure arrest is used in only the most severe offenses,” Beasley said. “Last year, more than 11,000 children were referred to the juvenile justice system from the schools, and only a fraction of those offenses were serious ones.”
Beasley’s comments came during a press conference Monday at East Guilford High to announce the release of the SJP Toolkit , which is essentially a step-by-step guide that shows judges and others how to establish SJPs.
In North Carolina, school-based cases make up about 40 percent of the referrals to the juvenile justice system. Many of the referrals, which frequently clog overburdened courts, are for minor, nonviolent offenses. Only eight percent of school-based referrals were for serious offenses during the 2016-17 school year.
“This project is about helping kids stay in school and out of court for minor misconduct,” LaToya Powell, an assistant general counsel in the Office of General Counsel for the Judicial Branch, said later during a Back to School Safety Summit at UNC Greensboro.
Powell described minor misconduct as disobeying a teacher, getting into a fight that doesn’t result in serious injury or involve weapons or “accidentally causing an injury while playing a game of dodgeball.”
Powell was referring to the 10-year-old African American boy in Michigan  recently charged with aggravated assault after injuring another student during a dodgeball game at school.
The charges were later dropped but not before sparking outrage in Black communities across the country.
“We all might have different opinions about whether some accountability was appropriate in this case,” Powell said. “But most of you probably paused for a moment to think about whether that behavior should send a child to court.”
While the offenses that lead to court referrals are mostly minor, the consequences of youth being expelled, suspended or becoming court-involved are not.
Consider these potential consequences shared by Beasley in a press release:
- Suspensions and expulsions increase the risk that students will drop out of school, repeat a grade or engage in future delinquent behavior.
- A single suspension triples the likelihood that a child will enter the juvenile justice system.
- Confinement in a juvenile facility increases the risk that a youth will be rearrested as an adult.
- A school-based referral can lead to a permanent criminal record, which creates barriers to college financial aid, employment, housing and military eligibility.
Reducing the number of school-based referrals will depend heavily on retraining many of the state’s School Resource Officers (SROs) who often make such judgments.
“The training is a really important component of a School Justice Partnership to ensure that those SROs are really equipped with the tools that they need to execute this,” said District Judge Elizabeth Trosch, who convened the SJP in Mecklenburg County.
In Mecklenburg, Trosch said a curriculum for SROs has been developed in partnership with local law enforcement agencies. SROs learn about the county’s diversion program, develop specific practices for engaging students, complete mental health first aid training and implicit bias training, she said.
“One of the things that we’ve seen nationally, and certainly in our data, is that all things being equal, children of color are 2.5 times more likely to be suspended or referred to court than their white peers for the same conduct,” Trosch said.
Data from the N.C. Department of Public Safety and N.C. Department of Public Instruction show:
- Children of color are 1.5 times more likely to be placed in secure confinement than white youth.
- African-American students make up 26 percent of the overall student population but receive 57 percent of suspensions.
- Students with disabilities are 13 percent of the overall student population but receive 24 percent of short-term suspensions and 22.5 percent of long-term suspensions.
- Male students are roughly half of the overall student population but receive 73 percent of short-term suspensions and 80 percent of long-term suspensions.
High Point Police Chief Kenneth Shultz said it’s critical to have a cadre of SROs who care about children.
“In our agency, it’s a coveted job,” Shultz said. “It’s very competitive. When an opening comes up, people who care about kids, want to get out there and get involved. If you have a school system that doesn’t have that, you going to have problems.”
But, Shultz said, SROs need resources to be successful.
“If a program like this can bring resources that can help take a look at the underlying problems and take some of this off of law enforcement, it’s going to be a good thing,” he said. “Working in partnership, we’re going to be a lot more successful finding the things kids need, finding the resources to manage them and the situations and keep the schools safe.”
The SJP concept is not a new one. The first SJP was established in 2004 by Chief Judge Steve Teske of Clayton County, Georgia.
Using “graduated discipline” strategies and alternative dispute resolutions, Clayton County officials saw an 83 percent decrease in the number of referrals and a 24 percent increase in graduation rates.
Similar results have been reported in North Carolina counties that have implemented SJPs. As of July 1, Brunswick, Greene, Lenoir, Mecklenburg, New Hanover, Stanly, Wayne counties and Whiteville City Schools had established SJPs.
Beasley said the goal is to have SJPs in all 100 counties.
Monday’s press conference was attended by Gov. Roy Cooper and dozens of law enforcement officers, judicial officials, elected officials and educators.
Cooper, who also used Monday’s event to announce a new executive order to promote gun safety , said keeping schools safe and orderly are important.
“At the same time, we know that too many suspensions and expulsions and court appearances have a negative effect on children and school safety,” Cooper said.
He pointed to a report from the New Hanover County Schools superintendent that showed a 67 percent reduction in referrals to children to juvenile court.
“This makes a lot of sense,” Cooper said. “When we find something that works, we need to go with it.”