The state’s new juvenile justice law is designed to keep children out of detention centers and into services that will address their needs. For school districts, this will mean a greater push to make sure these students are coming to school and to provide services for them.
With the new law, juveniles who commit truancy and other status offenses – charges that would not be a crime if they were an adult – and certain low-level misdemeanors will be referred to a court-designated worker for a risk assessment and referral to services, some of which could be provided by community agencies and some by schools. The court-designated worker, who must collaborate with school district pupil personnel directors, prepares a diversion plan that outlines those services, along with a requirement that the child attend school.
“The intent of the law is to work with the child and the family, which has not happened before in the juvenile justice system – this is good, but the fact is, that it’s a process that takes a long time and is only as good as the service provider you’re able to have working with these young people,” said Teresa T. Combs, KSBA’s director of Legal and Administrative Training Services, who provided statewide training on the new law.
PHOTO: Teresa T. Combs, KSBA’s director of Legal and Administrative Services, leads a training session on the changes to the state’s juvenile justice system, which will have an impact on school districts.
She said the up-front risk assessment is a strength of the reforms, but there is a question as to how effective the resulting diversion plan will be in getting a juvenile to come to school. In a court case, a judge can issue an order requiring attendance, which could carry more weight in making sure the youth complies.
“I feel like we may be removing a tool from the box that was needed,” said Barren County Schools Superintendent Bo Matthews, who worked seven years as a director of pupil personnel in the district. “Putting them under the judge’s order was probably one of the most important things that I as a DPP could do. Because I felt like then, the weight of the judge’s words now impacted the family.”
Matthews was a member of the task force that studied juvenile justice reform prior to the law’s passage during the 2014 General Assembly.
There are financial implications in this for districts, which will lose average daily attendance funding every time a child under a diversion plan skips a day of school. The length of the diversion will depend on the treatment plan.
For juveniles needing more intensive services or for those who do not follow their diversion plan, the court-designated worker will call on a FAIR (Family Accountability Intervention Response) Team to review the case and determine the next steps, which could be further interventions or referral to court. The teams, led by a court-designated specialist, are made up of representatives from various agencies, including local schools, county attorney’s office and the state social services office.
FAIR teams are in various stages of implementation statewide. Christian County was one of the pilot sites, with its FAIR team starting its work last October. Melanie Barrett, Christian County Schools’ pupil personnel director, praised the way the team has worked together “to do everything they can to make the kids’ needs first. … You’ve got all the players at the table.”
Barrett said of the 30 cases the Christian County FAIR team has heard, only three have been referred to court.
Another provision in the new law requires schools to provide educational records, on written request, to agencies that are part of the state’s juvenile justice system when status or public offense charges are filed. This is a plus, Combs said. “All these different agencies can share the information, the bits and pieces, that they have that they couldn’t share before. That’s a huge piece,” she said.
Schools also must use the state education department’s student information system, Infinite Campus, to report several types of data, including incidents resulting in a juvenile justice complaint, incidents reported to a court-designated worker, and whether the complaint originated with a school resource officer.
Combs stresses that nothing in the law keeps school districts from implementing their own early intervention and prevention programs, such as truancy diversion or mediation, to reduce referrals to a court-designated worker. She also advises districts to keep good data on the attendance of students in a diversion program to help eventually determine the effectiveness of that route versus a court order to attend school.
Overall, Matthews said he’s withholding judgment on the new law. “I feel like we need to see the results of the changes of the law over time,” he said. “I think we need two to three years to see whether or not we went down a wise road in the state of Kentucky.”
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