Something had to give. The courts were paralyzed by the influx of youth arrested in the schools. The police could not keep up with the paperwork demands of all the arrests, much less the court time or the time out of the schools. Youth were dropping out of school at record rates. Youth advocates were up in arms over so many youth missing so much class time waiting in court. Everyone was angry.
And something gave.
Led by Judge Steven Teske of the Clayton County Juvenile Court, each stakeholder was persuaded to give up a bit of their control and to reconsider the value and purpose of arresting youth in school. “I made it clear that I thought the practice was harmful to children, a bad use of resources, and a bad message to be giving kids about school,” said Judge Teske.
In 2004, Clayton County Juvenile Court, Clayton County Police Department and the Clayton County Public School District chose a new, proactive approach to policing schools. In what is now considered a model program, promoted and replicated by judges and school districts across the nation, police presence in schools employs an educational and counseling approach, graduated sanctions and warnings are used, and arrest is saved for serious infractions and used as a last resort.
“The collaborative approach we are using is the key,” says Adolphus Graves, the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Coordinator for Clayton County. “The court had to be willing to hear the concerns of the police department, school system administrators and vice versa. Our goal is to keep schools safe without diluting the powers of the police by putting so much police attention on infractions that are much less serious in nature.”
An agreement known as The School Referral Reduction Protocol was reached that identified 5 focus acts which would lead to school-based, educational responses to correct misconduct, and not to arrest. The Protocol [PDF] defines its terms and the triage approach as well as makes provision for emergency shelter care when parents cannot be located.
Youth would first get a warning when they committed any of the 5 focus acts which are Affray (mutual fighting between two participants), Disorderly Conduct, Disrupting a Public School, Criminal Trespass, and Misdemeanor Obstruction (failing to obey the commands of a police officer). The Warning [PDF] notes potential consequences, including court referrals, and requires parents to attend a workshop with their child or risk the child going to court.
Other youth would get a referral when they had previously received a warning for acts noted above and/or had been involved in bullying. Youth who receive a referral must attend a School Conflict Diversion Program or a Mediation Program, with their parent(s).
Police will file a complaint when a youth has received a 3rd or 4th offense against public order or a third bullying offense.
This collaborative effort led to the use of a triage system with 980 youth from the schools between 2003 and 2004. Statistically, the results were impressive: Of the 980 youth who went through the new system, only 98 (10%) were guilty of re-offending within a two year period. This approach saved police and probation officer time and resources, it reduced the number of days students were missing to attend court.
“It was hard at first,” said Sgt. Marc Richards who now leads the program as Sub Commander of the Clayton County Police Department. Richards speaks to police departments across the nation about how effective the program is.
“A police response is typically, ‘When an infraction is committed, it’s my job to arrest.’ They didn’t want to delve deeper into why a kid was behaving badly. So we had to change that.”
Richards explained that with the development of this protocol, it was easier and quicker to go through the protocol, document the issue and issue a ticket to a student than to arrest them. “Over time using the protocol was easier and more effective. It’s shorter than a complaint form.”
“It was more effective because we could distinguish kids who took the warning seriously from those who did not. With those who heard us we could focus on developing a relationship with them and they’d feel that you’d taken care of them and they became your eyes and ears in the school.”
“We showed that this approach could save a lot of valuable resources and time for probation officers who used to be overwhelmed by the number of school based arrests for low level offenses committed by children who wouldn’t receive further charges anyway,” said Graves. “Now they have reasonable caseloads and the time to focus on kids who really need the supervision, which creates a safer community for all.”
Now police officers are focusing much less on arrests and much more on being available to counsel youth or just be there for them. “So many kids need more time from their parents than they can get. We found that by taking that parenting role a bit, we could get better behavior from the kids, less arrests, and safer schools,” Richards said.
“Now we’re in a win-win situation,” said Judge Teske. “Schools focus on educating kids academically and behaviorally, and kids feel it is their safe haven; the police use their powers selectively for kids who really pose a danger, and the court focuses on the kids who need the most services and support. That’s the balance
we needed to achieve.”