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As Suspensions, Expulsions and Juvenile Arrests Grow, JDAI Sites Push Back

Judge Steven Teske of Clayton County, Georgia, testifies about JDAI during a hearing held by the U.S. House’s Education and Labor Committee to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974.

Everyone is shocked when a 7-year-old is arrested and expelled from school for carrying a pocketknife. But an overburdened juvenile court bombarded with referrals for schoolyard fights and minor disciplinary infractions draws much less notoriety.

As a consequence of the 1994 Gun Free School Act, and the stream of federal dollars that followed, schools enacted strict zero-tolerance policies and hired police (otherwise known as "school resource officers") to be present on campus. Before long, school administrators began applying zero tolerance policies across the board, to deal with bullying, cursing, minor threats, and disobedience, etc. To manage disruptive students, these same administrators relied more and more on their school resource officers, who arrest and refer problem students to the local juvenile court.

According to a study to be published this summer in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, researchers found evidence that "in four of five states, referrals from schools represented a greater proportion of total referrals to juvenile courts in 2004 than in 1995."

"Although schools have dedicated greater time and resources to school discipline, there is little evidence that zero-tolerance policies have resulted in improved school safety,” said Dr. Peter Leone, one of the researchers and a University of Maryland professor.

Predictably, the get-tough policies enacted in the early 1990s are much tougher on youth of color than on whites. Each year 15 percent of African American students are suspended, compared to the 5 percent of white students. In addition, only one in 1,000 white students are expelled, compared to one in 200 African American students.

"Poor black students are suspended at three times the rate of white students, a disparity not fully explained by differences in income or behavior," according to a 2010 report by the Advancement Project, a policy, communications and legal action group in Washington, D.C.

"Youth who are suspended repeatedly are dropping out of schools at very high levels."

This two-decade cycle of suspending, expelling and arresting young people has been described by critics as the "school-to-prison pipeline," essentially the criminalizing of young people for what many consider to be normal adolescent behavior. In addition, the nonstop flow of low-level juvenile cases is overloading juvenile court dockets, filling detention facilities, and worsening racial and ethnic disparities.

In an attempt to address a 2,000 percent increase in school-based referrals, JDAI practitioners in Clayton County, Georgia, developed a model protocol that is now being replicated in multiple sites.

In April of this year, Clayton County juvenile court judge Steven Teske testified before Congress, telling legislators that the county was alarmed to find that one-third of its court referrals were from schools and over 90 percent were misdemeanors stemming from minor disciplinary matters.

County officials responded by bringing together the police chief, the school superintendent and other stakeholders to negotiate guidelines on when misbehavior would be handled by the school.

"Now, instead of automatically arresting youth, school police have a variety of options, including giving students up to two warnings and referring them to a conflict skills class," said Teske.

Since these changes were made, Teske told Congress, Clayton County has significantly reduced the number of cases referred from the schools to the courts, reduced the number of serious incidents at schools and improved school outcomes.

Graduation rates have risen 21 percent while juvenile felony rates have decreased by 51 percent. Additionally, reducing school referrals to the juvenile justice system resulted in a 38 percent reduction in the number of youth of color referred to the juvenile justice system.

The Clayton County Police Department was recognized by "Strategies for Youth" for their outstanding and innovative practices in schools. Not only have school police stopped arresting as many students; they have dramatically changed the way in which they interact with students. They are now responsible for educating and counseling students who misbehave. Strategies for Youth is an organization dedicated to improving the interactions between police and youth by reframing what is too often an adversarial relationship. It offers trainings and  technical assistance, and promotes best practices.

Judge Brian Huff of Jefferson County, Alabama

Jefferson County (Birmingham), Alabama, was one of the first JDAI sites to replicate the Clayton County protocol. In just two years the local family court had received 1,000 complaints for school-based fights and misdemeanors. Close to all of the complaints were against African-Americans.

In 2010 a protocol was drafted and signed by all stakeholders outlining the roles and responsibilities of the juvenile court, law enforcement and schools in responding to behavior problems by students on school grounds.

In Indiana, the legislature recently passed House Bill 1193, which establishes a statewide 24-member study group composed of police, judges, principals and others who work with children who get in trouble at school The group will evaluate and make recommendations on specific local practices, such as when law enforcement and schools should collaborate, when school administrators should be notified before a student is arrested, what types of arrests should not occur on school property and what pilot programs and best practices should be considered.

This legislation is the first of its kind and was influenced heavily by the experience and success in Clayton County.

The JDAI site in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, sent a 14-person delegation to Clayton County in January and hopes to adapt what they learned in their jurisdiction. More than one-third of the court referrals in Jefferson Parish are school-based, and only 4 percent of those are for violent felonies. African American students make up about half of the youth in public schools, but they account for 80 percent of all school arrests.

Middlesex County, Massachusetts, is just one of several JDAI sites that have asked Judge Teske for technical assistance in replicating the Clayton County model. JDAI will publish a "Practice Guide" next year that will offer instructions on how to implement a school referral reduction program.

The Indiana legislation, Judge Teske’s testimony before Congress, the signed protocols describing the negotiated agreements among stakeholders and all other related documentation from Clayton and Jefferson counties can be found on the JDAI Help Desk. The JDAI Help Desk is a clearinghouse for JDAI-related materials.

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