An agreement signed by representatives of Lenoir County Public Schools, the state courts, the juvenile justice system and local law enforcement formalizes their commitment to keeping students in school and out of court by reducing law enforcement involvement in minor misconduct at schools.
The School-Justice Partnership, identified as the Partnership Agreement Community Teams with Schools (PACTS), was signed March 16 after more than a year of discussion and negotiation among the principle agencies. LCPS Superintendent Brent Williams and Jon Sargeant, a Kinston attorney and chair of the Lenoir County Board of Education, led the effort for the school district.
The school board approved a draft of the agreement on Feb. 12.
“We want to do everything we can to make sure our first course of action is not putting charges against young people in our schools unnecessarily,” Williams said at that meeting. “When it’s necessary it should happen, and it will happen in every single case. But looking at it through a lens of situation-specific circumstances, we’re going to have a tiered response protocol. That’s radically different from what we have now.”
The agreement identifies a dozen “focused acts” – minor criminal offenses such as affray, disorderly conduct, simple possession of marijuana and second-degree trespass – that will be meet with a graduated response from school administrators and also sets parameters for law enforcement’s interaction with the schools.
Typically, the response would begin with intervention by the classroom teacher. If necessary, intervention would next involve a school-based team led by a school administrator. After other options have been exhausted, the school could involve law enforcement, which would determine the appropriate response for violations of criminal law.
“We want to be tough on these acts in schools and we will be, but we also know from the data that there is an alarming trend of children who’ve been charged with comparative minor offenses in schools and these charges follow them,” Williams said. “The long-term result of these charges is that they tend to follow these young people through the college application process and into the world of work. Indeed, in many cases these tend to be life sentences for these young people.”
Schools are responsible for developing their own graduated response model, which will utilize programs already active in LCPS, such as the PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) and MTSS (multi-tiered system of supports), Williams noted.
“A School Based Graduated Response Model encourages professionals to find student support solutions when possible,” the agreement reads. “Repeated punishments may not be effective if there are significant underlying causes to student misbehavior and the student’s presence in school is not interfering with the learning environment.”
Judge Beth Heath of Kinston was instrumental in bringing law enforcement and others together with school officials in Lenoir County. “The strategies implemented by the PACTS agreement address minor juvenile misconduct in a way that provides more accountability for juveniles and their parents than the adult court system, which does not involve parents in the process,” she said.
Data show that students who are suspended and expelled are more likely to repeat a grade, drop out of school and engage in higher levels of disruptive behavior. A single suspension also tripled the likelihood that a student will enter the juvenile justice system, according to North Carolina court records.
But in New Hanover County, where a School-Justice Partnership is already in place, referrals to the juvenile justice system decreased 47 percent in its first year.
“This whole agreement really has no effect on the way we as a school district handles discipline,” Sargeant, the school board chair, said at the February meeting. “We can still expel students, we can still give them suspensions. This is not about how we discipline our students within the system. There are two separate systems going on here. One is our system of discipline and the other is the court system of discipline. The question is when does the court need to get involved.”
The N.C. General Assembly mandated all counties create School-Justice Partnerships when it approved legislation last summer that, effective in December 2019, will raise from 16 to 18 the age that young people will be considered adults in North Carolina courts. Lenoir County was the first to approve a partnership agreement since the legislation passed because work on that agreement was already well underway.
“There needed to be a discussion about what goes into that decision to charge a student with something that happens during the school day or on school property,” Sargeant said. “We need to treat all our students fairly and equally. We want uniformity, equal and fair treatment for all of our students.”