New program would keep Wake County teens out of criminal court

Wake County teenagers who get into trouble at school for committing less serious criminal offenses will have a chance under a new program to face the consequences without getting a criminal record.

Students who are between 16 and 18 years old who are accused of committing nonviolent misdemeanors at school would be diverted from adult criminal court to alternatives such as Teen Court and mediation. Students who successfully complete the program, which will come with treatment for behavioral issues, would not face criminal charges or have an arrest record on their file.

Details of the new county-funded program are still being completed, but it comes in response to North Carolina’s status as one of the few states that treat teenagers as young as 16 as adults when charged with criminal offenses.

“This gives our school resource officers a tool to keep young people out of the adult criminal justice system,” said school board member Christine Kushner. “This allows children to recover from a bad mistake to keep them on track to graduate.”

Kushner and Wake County District Court Judge Vince Rozier have co-chaired a group that has met since last spring to help get the new program started. The group held its latest meeting Friday during the same week that new reports were released showing that black students account for a majority of the school district’s arrests and suspensions.

The reports also showed that 48 percent of the 850 court referrals filed last school year by school resource officers – law-enforcement officers assigned to schools – were made to the adult criminal court system.

The new program has widespread support from school, court, mental health, law enforcement and social justice leaders. They say they want to avoid criminalizing offenses such as petty thefts, misdemeanor drug possession and school fights that don’t result in serious injuries.

Underlying causes

Cases such as a cellphone theft on campus shouldn’t introduce students to the criminal justice system, according to Brenda Elliott, the Wake County school system’s assistant superintendent for student support services.

“We don’t want law enforcement involved when kids are just violating school rules,” Elliott said. “We want them to focus on the safety of students and interrupting criminal behavior and violent behavior.”

Instead of filing charges for low-level offenses committed on school property, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said, school resource officers will be expected to refer students to a program administered by Alliance Behavioral Healthcare. Freeman said that the program coordinator, using guidelines developed by her office, will refer the student to an appropriate diversion program.

In addition to avoiding a criminal record, Freeman said, another advantage is that students will be screened to determine what factors might have led to their criminal behavior, such as mental health or substance abuse issues. Freeman said the hope is that addressing the underlying issues now will put students back on the right path.

“We’re hoping we won’t see any future criminal activity, so they can become contributing members to our community,” Freeman said.

Still accountable

Freeman said school resource officers who still want to file charges for nonviolent misdemeanors will have to talk with her office.

Elliott said the goal is to provide social and emotional intervention to try to change the student’s behavior as opposed to just punishing the behavior. But she said that students will still be held accountable for their actions even if they don’t face criminal charges.

“If a student commits a crime in school there has to be a consequence, but that consequence doesn’t have to be in court,” Elliott said.

Elliott said restorative justice options could lead to a conversation between the offender and the victim to address the harm that was done. She said the process helps students realize the harm that they’ve caused and comes up with ways to restore them to the community.

The success rate has been 90 percent for restorative justice programs run by Campbell University’s Law School at several Wake schools, according to Elliott.

“We’re not seeing people who are going through restorative practices repeating the offenses again,” Elliott said.

Advocates for Children’s Services, a project of Legal Aid of North Carolina, has for years been critical of the syndrome it refers to as the school-to-prison pipeline. But Jen Story, an attorney for Advocates for Children’s Services who served on the working group, said the new program is an encouraging step that she hopes will be emulated by other counties.

“Community groups have been raising issues for years, and the data showed there are issues,” Story said. “This is a great step for meaningfully addressing those issues.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui