State Board of Ed receives hopeful report of progress in slowing NC’s school-to-prison pipeline

By: - November 7, 2019 2:35 pm
Judge J.H. Corpening (left), LaToya Powell (center) and William Lassiter (right)

GREENSBORO – A Pender County graduate almost missed an opportunity to pursue his dream job because he got into a fight while in high school at age 15.  

New Hanover County Chief District Court Judge J.H. Corpening told the State Board of Education (SBE) on Wednesday that the young man dreamed of joining the U.S. Air Force to pursue a career in military intelligence.  

But when he self-reported to a recruiter that he was charged in the school incident and sent to Teen Court, where the case was dismissed, Corpening said the recruiter told the young man he no longer qualified for the selective intelligence Military Occupational Specialty, commonly referred to as an “MOS.”   

That’s when Corpening got a call from the young man’s principal who asked for help.  

Corpening reviewed the case and found that because the young man was only 15 at the time of the fight, the case was referred to Juvenile Court. That meant no formal charges were filed in adult court.  

“Guess who’s in the Air Force on the way to a career in Air Force intelligence now?” Corpening asked. “If he’d been 16, he’d been sent to [adult] court, life changing. It’s real. We’ve got to pay attention.”  

Corpening used the story to illustrate the potential harm that frequently occurs when students, particularly those ages 16-18, are ushered into the school-to-prison pipeline and tagged with criminal records for committing minor offenses in school.  

He was part of a panel that included William Lassiter, deputy secretary for Juvenile Justice with the Department of Public Safety and LaToya B. Powell, assistant legal counsel with the Office of General Counsel, North Carolina Judicial Branch.   

The three attended the SBE’s fall work session, held in Greensboro on the N.C. A&T University campus, to ask the board to help encourage county leaders to embrace the School Justice Partnership (SJP) initiative to help derail the school-to-prison pipeline. 

The new “Raise the Age” law authorizes statewide expansion of SJP’s in order to reduce school arrests, out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. 

So, what’s an SJP? 

SJP’s are formed when community leaders from schools, law enforcement and the court system join to develop and implement strategies to address student misconduct within the school system and the community rather than via referral to the justice system.  

There are currently 12 SJP’s operating in counties across North Carolina.

They are led by a “convener,” usually the chief district court judge of a county, who brings key leaders together and chairs meetings. (Click here to watch a seven-minute video on SJP’s featuring Judge Corpening and here to explore the PowerPoint presentation that was shared at yesterday’s meeting.) 

Corpening serves in that role in New Hanover County where there has been a 67% reduction in school-based court referrals since the SJP was formed in 2013. In the 2017-18 school year, only 24% of students referred to a school resource officer (SRO) entered the court system. Before the SJP, 86% of such students entered the court system.  

Other counties with SJP’s report similar success. Brunswick county, for example, reports a 42% decline in school-based referrals since the 2016-17 school year. The decline in Mecklenburg County was 59% during the same period.   

“There’s a difference between discipline and punishment,” Corpening said. “We’re trying to get back to discipline, which has a component of punishment, but the root of the word ‘discipline’ is to teach. If we’re going to help kids change behavior, we’ve really got to pay attention to that.”  

In North Carolina, school-based referrals make up about 40% of the referrals to the juvenile justice system. Most are for minor, nonviolent transgressions. In the 2016-2017 school year, only 8% of school-based referrals were for serious offenses. 

“We want to really focus on what’s causing that to occur because we know once they get into the juvenile justice system their likelihood of dropping out of school increases and their likelihood of not graduating from high school increases. So we want to look at whether there’s a better way of handling those cases moving forward,” Lassiter said.   

Despite the success of the state’s SJP’s, Powell said there has been some misinformation spread about the initiative, including suggestions that it allows bad behavior to go unpunished. 

“School Justice Partnerships are really designed to address that disorderly conduct offense where somebody yelled at a teacher, no one was harmed, no one was injured, there was no threat to students, school officials or the community at large,” Powell said.  

Corpening said SJP’s make school safer because SRO’s remain on campus instead of in court and school districts are compelled to address students’ needs. 

“Our school resource officers are spending more time in school than ever before,” Corpening said. “They’re not down at the juvenile court counselor’s office asking permission to charge a kid or sitting in an adult court for court date after court date.” 

Patrick Miller, superintendent of Greene County Schools, said there are some education groups who worry that the Memorandum of Understandings (MOU’s) signed by the partnerships might prohibit school administrators from handing down appropriate punishment for bad behavior. 

Miller said that hasn’t been the case Greene County, which recently formed an SJP. 

“The consequences available to us have broadened because we have begun to think about alternatives to suspension,” Miller said.   

As Policy Watch reported in August, SJP’s are supported by Cheri Beasley, chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, who sees them as transformative. 

“The truth is that school discipline has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, and the thing we want to do is to make sure arrest is used in only the most severe offenses,” Beasley said at the time. “Last year, more than 11,000 children were referred to the juvenile justice system from the schools, and only a fraction of those offenses were serious ones.”  

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.