OJD Spotlight: A Discussion on School-Justice Partnerships with LaToya Powell

As we observe and prepare for the full implementation of North Carolina’s plan to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction, there are some elements of the new legislation that are worth highlighting, one of those being the mandate for school-justice partnerships.  The Office of the Juvenile Defender had the pleasure of sitting down with LaToya Powell to discuss the roll-out of the school-justice partnership project.

Office of the Juvenile Defender: Thank you for taking the time to be here with us today, LaToya.  Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your background in juvenile justice.

LaToya Powell: I have been working in the area of juvenile justice since I graduated law school in 2005.  First, as a prosecutor in Johnston County, then as an appellate attorney with the Attorney General’s Office where I handled juvenile delinquency appeals for the State.  After that, I worked as a law professor at the UNC School of Government, where I trained and advised North Carolina public officials, including juvenile court judges, prosecutors, juvenile defenders, and lawmakers.  Currently, I am with the Office of General Counsel at the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) where I work as the Assistant Legal Counsel responsible for addressing juvenile delinquency issues and policy changes like Raise the Age.

LaToya Powell headshotOJD:  What are school-justice partnerships?

LP:  A school-justice partnership is exactly what it says.  It’s a partnership between the schools and the courts and other community stakeholders, like law enforcement and juvenile justice, designed to reduce the school-to-prison pipeline.  The school-to-prison pipeline is what happens when schools rely heavily on exclusionary discipline, like suspensions, expulsions, and referring kids to court, to address minor misconduct in school.  We know from Juvenile Justice data that close to 50 percent of petitions are based on misconduct that happens at schools.  Ninety-four percent of those cases are minor misdemeanors, like simple assault, misdemeanor larceny, and disorderly conduct, such as a kid being disruptive in class or yelling at a teacher.  What we know from evidence is that when kids are referred to court, they are more likely to drop out of school, they are more likely to engage in future misconduct and they are more likely to be charged as an adult.  So not only does it produce negative outcomes for the students, but it also makes schools and communities less safe because it increases recidivism.

Rather than push kids out of school, school-justice partnerships keep kids in school where they have better outcomes.  And as a result of Raise the Age, we now have a directive from the Legislature to the Director of the AOC to create policies and procedures to expand school-justice partnerships throughout North Carolina.

OJD:  What results are you hoping to see from the expansion of school-justice partnerships?

LP:  What we would hope to see is a reduction in the number of school-based referrals that go to the court system, and as a result of that, better outcomes for students—greater academic achievement, lower dropout rates, increased graduation rates, safer schools—those are the main goals for this partnership.  Another thing that we hope to see is less disproportionality in the way that school discipline is administered because the school-to-prison pipeline has a disparate impact on certain groups of students, primarily students of color and disabled students.

OJD:  What questions or problems do you anticipate for these programs?

LP:  The biggest problem or obstacle that we anticipate is the lack of resources for schools that need to be able to address disruptive students without the need to suspend them or send them to court.  There are many counties in our state that have lots of programs, community-based and school-based, that support students who are misbehaving at school, but other counties are not so fortunate.  They don’t have as many resources or tools to help their teachers who have a classroom of 30 or more kids.  Often times, all they have is a school resource officer who they can ask “Can you help me with this kid who is disturbing my classroom?” So, we hope to see more funding to create additional programs that will serve this population of students.

We know that some of our counties have things like restorative justice programs, Teen Court programs, and other diversion programs that are very successful and produce really great results for children.  The Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee (JJAC), which is monitoring the implementation of Raise the Age, has requested additional resources from the Legislature to fund diversion programs for these school-justice partnerships.  Also, the AOC is creating a school-justice partnership toolkit that provides guidance on how to create and implement a school-justice partnership.

OJD:  How many counties in N.C. are currently implementing school-justice partnership programs and have there been any measurable levels of success?

LP:  To my knowledge there are at least six counties that currently have school-justice partnerships and several others are in the process of creating them.  New Hanover County established its school-justice partnership about two years ago under the leadership of Chief District Court Judge J. Corpening and under its model, schools use graduated responses to address minor misconduct.  A graduated response model is a tiered system of sanctions that essentially gives the child a second chance to get it right.  So, instead of a student immediately being arrested and charged the first time he or she gets into a fight, the school will first try to address the misconduct without resorting to exclusionary discipline.  For example, a teacher might reprimand the student or require the student to do an assignment that relates to the behavior.  And then the next time the student misbehaves, the school might refer the student to a program or a behavioral specialist at the school.  Under the graduated response model, a child would have to receive at least two graduated responses before a referral to court can be made.  As a result of this school-justice partnership, New Hanover County has reduced school-based referrals by 47 percent.

OJD:  What other solutions would you propose to derail the school-to-prison pipeline?

LP:  I think this project is going to help lots of children in North Carolina avoid contact with the juvenile justice system.  And that is really important, not just for our kids but also for our schools and our communities.  By reducing the population of students who are being referred to court for minor misconduct that happens at school, it will increase the capacity of the juvenile court system to serve the older population of juveniles, 16- and 17-year-olds, who will soon become a part of that system.  The successful implementation of Raise the Age is an important step in reducing the school to prison pipeline.

OJD:  How can people learn more about school-justice partnerships in North Carolina?

LP:  For more information about School Justice Partnership North Carolina, please visit SJP.nccourts.gov.

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