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Summit spurs school-focused bill

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A juvenile justice summit by the Indiana State Bar Association in August has led to the introduction of a bill that would change how students are treated in schools and hopefully decrease the number of school suspensions while increasing statewide graduation rates.

House Bill 1193, introduced by Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, marks the first statewide effort of its kind in the country for how it addresses the roles of school resource officers, educators, mental health professionals, social workers, and others who regularly interact with elementary school, middle school, and high school students.

The bill passed out of committee 10-0 Jan. 12 and has support from a number of organizations.

HB 1193 has two main purposes according to those who support it, including JauNae Hanger, a former commissioner of the Indiana Commission on Disproportionality in Youth Services and former chair of the ISBA Children's Rights Committee; and Judge Steven Teske of Clayton County, Ga.

The first goal of the bill is to provide a framework for training officers who work with school-age children. The second goal is to have a working group that will study how those efforts make a difference and what other efforts could be made.

"We train officers how to handle narcotics, DUIs, traffic accidents, but we don't offer the same level of training for those who are dealing with kids," said Lawson, an experienced officer herself.

Juvenile Judge Marilyn Moores of the Marion Superior Court, who testified in support of the bill, also advocated for more police training for officers who regularly work with students and said there needs to be more consistency.

By developing a youth work group, better data will be available about what is being done already and what could be better when it comes to the relationships police officers and others have with children they come into contact with.

Part of the inspiration for the statewide legislation is work Judge Teske has done on a county level as a juvenile court judge for a suburb of Atlanta.

Judge Teske is nationally known for his work with alternatives to zero-tolerance policies. He's worked with school systems in Columbus, Ohio; Madison, Wis.; a county just outside of Boston; and schools in Oregon, Washington, and Louisiana that have similar issues in terms of low graduation rates and high rates of out-ofschool suspensions.

Besides being a keynote speaker at the August summit in Indiana, Judge Teske testified for the bill Jan. 12. He presented data about his county as it related to zero-tolerance policies and alternatives to out-of-school suspensions for students.

In his data, there were obvious decreases in misdemeanor arrests after the school system, juvenile court, and police department signed an agreement in 2004 that would allow for alternatives to suspension.

The alternatives were a warning for the first offense, a referral for the student to attend a workshop for the second offense, and a complaint would be filed at the third offense.

Judge Teske said in most cases the offenses would stop after the warning or the workshop. It was also discovered through the data that most of the misdemeanor offenses that caused students to miss school prior to the alternatives were relatively small things like mouthing off or arguments between students.

Felonies, which included bringing guns or drugs to school, also decreased nearly 50 percent in his county as a result of alternative punishments. Under the zerotolerance policy, suspension rates doubled, drop-out rates increased, and racial and ethnic disparities also increased.

Russell Skiba, director of the Equity Project at the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University, also participated in the August summit and testified on behalf of the bill. He added there was no proof of any positive effects of zero tolerance and that training was a better answer.

After the officers in Judge Teske's county received training and alternatives to taking students to the juvenile detention center for every seemingly small offense, not only did the numbers and bad behavior decrease on school campuses, the police made new allies in the community.

In one case, it was from talking to students that the police were able to arrest a member of the community who had $70,000 in cash, two pounds of marijuana, and a cache of weapons in his house.

Judge Teske also spoke about the role of school resource officers when there is an actual incident that warrants their attention, such as a student who is threatening his classmates or teachers, as opposed to a student who had a bad attitude but didn't cause or threaten physical harm.

By keeping the police - and probation officers - available for "the kids who scare us," he said, that will prevent worse tragedies than a food fight or a harmless misunderstanding.

As a result of the decrease in suspensions, there was a steady increase in graduation rates from when the alternatives were introduced in 2004 to 2009.

"Who would have thought that if you kept kids in school they would actually graduate?" he quipped.

Judge Teske and other supporters of the bill recognize there is a difference between implementing a program for a county and implementing a program for a state where every county has different needs and resources. Judge Teske said the bill would still allow each county to determine its own best practices based on what was available.

Lawson said she was pleased that all stakeholders in Indiana were willing to come together on this issue. For instance, educators need to teach math and reading, but they can't be effective if they have disruptive students.

But teachers are aware that "if they ask Johnny why he's being disruptive, they have to be prepared to deal with the answer," Lawson said.

This is where social workers, mental health workers, and others in the community can work with the teachers on how to deal with the issues of students who need help by providing information about resources available in the community to children and their families.

In addition to the bill, Hanger and Paje Felts, legislative counsel for the Indiana State Bar Association, said the next step is to finish a report based on what summit participants said about Indiana's current policies. While the report was the first priority following the summit, Hanger said they wanted to keep up the momentum and chose to work on the legislation.

Felts said she was happy to see support for the bill and what it stands for, and that it was rewarding to her and everyone else at the summit that their August discussion would have a lasting impact.

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