In Georgia, a School District Reduces its Reliance on Juvenile Courts

Posted July 15, 2019
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
The Front Porch serves young people and families in Savannah, Georgia

When Ann Lev­ett joined Georgia’s Savan­nah-Chatham Coun­ty Pub­lic School Sys­tem as its chief aca­d­e­m­ic offi­cer in 2014, she noticed an alarm­ing sta­tis­tic: Hun­dreds of stu­dents were being sent to juve­nile court for minor infrac­tions at school, such as fight­ing or talk­ing back to teachers.

Lev­ett, now the school district’s super­in­ten­dent, rec­og­nized that the schools need­ed a new approach to mis­be­hav­ior. Thanks to the county’s exist­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion among the schools, juve­nile court, police, com­mu­ni­ty part­ners, and oth­ers — led by Chief Juve­nile Court Judge LeRoy­Burke III — this would be a mul­ti­a­gency, mul­ti­pronged approach.

For their part, school admin­is­tra­tors began exam­in­ing data on the school district’s role in delin­quen­cy referrals.

They found that 345 stu­dents were referred to juve­nile court dur­ing the 201314 school year — and that most of these stu­dents were chil­dren of color.

The data raised some impor­tant questions:

  • Why were stu­dents being referred to court?
  • How could the school dis­trict help fam­i­lies who were struggling?
  • How could teach­ers, pro­ba­tion offi­cers and police be bet­ter equipped to help change the tra­jec­to­ries of students?

Seek­ing answers, schoo admin­is­tra­tors met reg­u­lar­ly with the col­lab­o­ra­tive. The group had a clear goal: to hold stu­dents account­able while reduc­ing the num­ber of local youth who end­ed up in state-run juve­nile cor­rec­tion­al facilities.

Col­lab­o­ra­tion was key. No one agency can do it alone,” says Tanya Wash­ing­ton, senior asso­ciate at the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, which has pro­vid­ed strate­gic sup­port to Chatham Coun­ty’s reform efforts.

School offi­cials par­tic­i­pat­ed in two Casey Foun­da­tion-sup­port­ed com­mu­ni­ty safe­ty forums, where atten­dees explored how to reduce court involve­ment for young peo­ple. The dis­trict also took action, host­ing cross-agency train­ings on restora­tive jus­tice and implic­it bias and help­ing to fund an edu­ca­tion­al advo­cate at the juve­nile court.

In part­ner­ship with the Chatham Coun­ty Juve­nile Court, Chatham Coun­ty gov­ern­ment, city of Savan­nah and oth­er local agen­cies, the school dis­trict opened a com­mu­ni­ty resource cen­ter for school-aged chil­dren and their fam­i­lies who were on the verge of cri­sis. Called The Front Porch, the cen­ter — which accepts refer­rals from schools, courts, youth and fam­i­lies — offers assess­ments and coun­sel­ing to proac­tive­ly address a family’s needs and keep young peo­ple out of court.

Anoth­er ini­tia­tive, the Work Readi­ness Enrich­ment Pro­gram, serves youth charged with felony-lev­el offens­es or mul­ti­ple prop­er­ty crimes. The program’s offer­ings include edu­ca­tion advo­ca­cy to help youth tran­si­tion back to school as well as train­ing with behav­ioral health self-care and finan­cial lit­er­a­cy fundamentals.

This mul­ti­a­gency, mul­ti­pronged approach appears to be pay­ing off: Dur­ing the 20182019 school year, only 52 stu­dents were referred to court from Savan­nah-Chatham Coun­ty schools. Oth­er­wise put: This sta­tis­tic had dropped 85% in five years.

Judge Burke attrib­ut­es this progress to stake­hold­ers’ will­ing­ness to reex­am­ine the sta­tus quo. Recent reform has come about because insti­tu­tions and per­sons affect­ing chil­dren in the com­mu­ni­ty had the courage to chal­lenge their own process­es and beliefs,” he says.

Lev­ett would agree. Help­ing kids remain strong — not only to sur­vive, but to thrive — means pro­vid­ing good direc­tion and ser­vices, and not nec­es­sar­i­ly from the court,” she says.

Learn more about juve­nile jus­tice reform in Savannah

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