Re-routing the school-to-prison pipeline

Tippecanoe County is just one of a handful of sites across the nation participating in a special initiative designed to constrict the flow of minors into the juvenile justice system and give them a second chance.

The School Pathways to the Juvenile Justice System Project is an effort launched by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges to reduce referrals to courts for infractions in classrooms. To start the new program, the organization selected 16 courts from around the country to implement change, evaluate progress and share their findings with other courts.

Tippecanoe Superior Court was the only location selected in Indiana.

Rebecca Humphrey, youth services executive director for Tippecanoe County, described the Pathways project as a kissing cousin to the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. While JDAI works to find options other than incarceration of youths already in the justice system, Pathways seeks to keep students from the justice system altogether.

“The goal is to get the right kids in the right place,” Humphrey said, explaining the program wants to get the best treatment for low- and moderate-risk students. “The justice system should be reserved for the kids who can’t stop their behavior or are a risk to the community.”

About three weeks ago, a team from the NCJFCJ came to Lafayette to meet with stakeholders and provide training and technical assistance.

The court invited a broad array of individuals and agencies to that first meeting including faith-based groups, the local Court Appointed Special Advocates program and the United Way, along with school counselors and administrators, mental health professionals and representatives from the prosecutor’s and public defender’s offices.

Everyone discussed the key issues causing the referrals from schools to the courts, according to Superior Court 3 Judge Faith Graham. They also looked at available data and identified data they wanted to collect.

Number crunching will play a vital role in the project. As Graham explained, once the program has all the data, the members can start to map the next steps in creating an objective response to how children and teenagers are getting referred to the justice system.

Alternatives to arrest

Graham, a juvenile court judge, said an “ah-ha” moment intensified her interest in the Pathways project.

She had received a call from probation officers who told her a juvenile had been arrested at school and brought to the county’s juvenile intake center. However, the officers there were not sure what to do.

The student had been taken to the center for theft after picking up two packets of salad dressing from the lunch line.

Graham told the officers to process the student like they do any other juvenile and, if the individual has not been suspended or expelled, to take that student back to school.

“We’re not going to send a kid to detention because they took two packets of ranch dressing,” Graham said. “I mean this is the moment in time I (realized) we’ve got to do something.”

Pathways will examine school-based solutions for misbehavior. Alternatives to arrest include Saturday school, teen court and restorative justice programs, which bring the offender and the victim together to talk about the problem, Humphrey said.

Schools are under greater stress today with the increased emphasis on test scores, graduation rates and teacher performance, Humphrey continued. Administrators and faculty do not have much time to develop creative ways to handle discipline problems, so the easier solution has become sending the students to the justice system.

The Lafayette School Corp. is beginning a pilot program designed to give students more voice in creating a climate that will reduce discipline issues in the schools. Administrators are working with Pathways, Graham, Humphrey and Brandie Oliver, assistant professor of school counseling at Butler University.

Typically, the teachers track and deal with student misbehavior, said Carol Kilver assistant superintendent for secondary curriculum and instruction in the school corporation. Students are given a handbook that contains the behavior expectations but most do not read the manual and only learn about the depth of the consequences when they commit a violation.

Now the school system wants to involve students in developing ground rules so they have ownership and are accountable to each other. The corporation has trained some middle school teachers and is looking to implement the new approach with the 7th grade students.

Although this program might appear to eat into instruction time, Kilver said it could boost the students’ ability to learn. She noted all learning is emotional and taking 15 minutes to gather the students together for a conversation can actually make them better prepared to learn.

Anticipating success

Kilver, who is participating in the Pathways project, believes the program can help schools work smarter.

Both Humphrey and Graham are confident the program will mirror the success of JDAI. Between 2010 and 2013, JDAI is credited with cutting secured detention admissions in Tippecanoe County by 51.2 percent and decreasing overall juvenile arrests by 14.4 percent.

In 2010, a total of 336 juvenile offenders in the county were sent to secured detention, but by 2013, only 164 were admitted. Likewise, 1,031 juveniles were arrested in 2010 compared to 883 arrested in 2013.

“We’re making a lot of good progress,” Graham said of JDAI, “so we think if we apply these same principles to the arrests that are occurring within the schools, we’ll have the same level of progress.”

Many of the initiatives that grow from Pathways will be data driven. Currently, the work is centered on collecting data on the reasons why students are being arrested and making sure the schools measure the same elements in the same way. Then the participants will review the data to see what is happening in the schools and why.

Graham believes what Tippecanoe County learns through Pathways will be applicable to other courts throughout Indiana. Still, she keeps a realistic view of how much the program can accomplish.

There will always be youths who should be put in secure detention because they commit very dangerous crimes and are a threat to the community, she said. However, other juveniles who make a bad decision or commit a one-time offense – like grabbing two helpings of salad dressing – might not need to be locked up.

“We could have a better response,” Graham said. “It’s not that we’re going to eliminate (detention) entirely, but hopefully we can reduce and address it simply just for the dangerous issues.”•

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