Forum held at North Rowan Middle educates parents, students
SPENCER - Teens who get behind the wheel after having a few drinks could end up behind bars for 30 days.
Rowan County District Court Judge Beth Dixon told a group of parents and students gathered at North Rowan Middle School on Saturday that Laura's Law mandates the sentence if impaired drivers are caught with passengers who are under 18 or have a mental of physical disability.
The law is meant to deter parents from driving while intoxicated with their children in the vehicle, and to keep repeat drunk drivers off the road, Dixon said. The law could easily land teenagers in jail.
"The reason I want parents to know about this law is because this to me sounds like prom night," she said.
Dixon said students could be impaired after having a couple of drinks or taking a prescription pain mediation.
"Adults oftentimes can get credit for required jail time by going to inpatient treatment, but our kids are not addicts," she said.
Dixon went over how young people could end up in the criminal justice system during the North Rowan Parent and Student Education Forum. It was sponsored by a grant from the North Carolina Bar Association.
She was one of five presenters during the event Saturday. Workshop topics included fundamentals of special education law, bullying and suspension, expulsion and alternative education.
Dixon said the idea from the forum came after talking with East Spencer Alderman Tammy Corpening.
"She asked me a question one day and we were talking about some issues that parents need to know," she said. "That happened at about the same time that I was taking over as the chair of the Juvenile Justice and Children's Rights Council at the bar association and the chief justice challenges each section to do an injustice project each year."
Dixon said after brainstorming her section decided to present workshops about things parents need to know.
"I just have a special interest in our youth and particularly keeping our youth out of trouble," she said. "I have some insight because I see things that typical parents don't see in my courtroom. A lot of my presentation was anecdotes of things I've seen in court."
Parent Wanda Matthews said she was surprised to hear the types of things that could land students in jail.
"I really learned a lot," she said. "I will definitely be going home and going over this stuff with my son."
Matthews said she wasn't aware that a sexual battery charge could stem from touching through clothing. The misdemeanor can result in 150 days in jail and requires the perpetrator to register as a sex offender.
Dixon said any sexual contact including touching of the breasts or buttocks and using one's own sexual organ to touch another person against their will is dubbed sexual battery.
"Let me tell you where I've seen it: copping a feel in the hallway at the high school," she said. "If you're grinding on someone against their will at the school dance, any of that kind of stuff has several consequences."
Students can end up facing felony charges for sexual exploitation of a minor if they knowingly posses or distribute material containing a visual representation of a minor engaged in a sexual activity.
Dixon said that includes child porn, sex tapes and "sexting," which involves sending sexual images by text.
"If a minor takes suggestive pictures of themselves and sends it to their boyfriend or girlfriend, and the recipient saves it, they are committing a felony just by keeping it on their phone or computer," she said. "Make sure you get rid of it."
Students who are charged with any type of felony are prohibited by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association from playing sports.
They are not allowed to participate while the charge is pending and if they are found guilty, they are banned from participating in sports altogether.
Dixon said youth also need to be aware of a series of laws dealing with cyberspace.
"Cellphones and computers are getting our kids in trouble," she said.
Cyberstalking can result in 60 days behind bars. That can include threatening bodily harm or property damage or harassing and intimating through electric communication.
Dixon said parents can end up in trouble if they allow cyber-stalking.
"If you own the cellphone or the computer that your child is using, you need to monitor what they're doing," she said. "If you noticed that it's being misused, take it away.
"For my kids, grounding used to be the most feared form of punishment. Now it's losing their cellphone."
Cyberbullying can come in many forms, including posting a real or doctored image of a minor on the Internet, planting a statement to provoke the harassment of a minor and building a fake profile or website.
Those convicted of misdemeanor cyberbullying can serve between 60 and 120 days in jail.
Dixon said youths are charged as a minor from ages 8 to 15. At 16, they are sent to adult court,where they can face harsher sentences.
"The beauty of juvenile court is that it's a therapeutic model," she said. "It's helping court, it's not as much about punishment."
Supervising attorney Brenda Berlin and law student Elisa Greenwood traveled from the Duke University School of Law Children's Law Clinic to present about special education law Saturday.
"We went over the special education process and gave them a general overview of what to expect," Greenwood said. "Then we tried to introduce them to some vocabulary that's often used in special education because it's a lot of jargon, abbreviations, acronyms.
"Half the battle of understanding the process is understanding what we're actually talking about."
Everything from autism to hearing problems to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder fall under the umbrella of special education.
Greenwood said it's important for parents to be strong advocates for their children because they are in the best position to speak up for them.
"One of the first hurdles for parents to get over is just not being afraid to go to the school and say 'I think my child needs help,' " she said. "I think sometimes parents can be a little intimated because they don't' think they have the expertise that the special education director or the teacher is going to have, but they do have expertise in that they know their child."
Berlin said parents need to understand that they have the right to have their child evaluated if they suspect something is interfering with their learning and the current mechanisms to correct the problem aren't working.
"One of the most important things that we see in our clinic is that sometimes parents get lost and don't understand what their rights are," she said. "They don't have to sit back and watch these interventions fail, if it doesn't work after six weeks or if they think the child has a disability then they should make a referral to the principal."
Berlin said that referral needs to be presented to the principal in writing.
"If they do that, that will under the law started the official evaluation process," she said.
Parents who are new to the world of special education can find resources through the state's Exceptional Children's Assistant Center, which is based in Davidson.
"They have a parent hotline, parent lending library and parent advocates who can explain the process," Berlin said.
That hotline can be reached at 800-962-6817. The center's website is www.ecac-parentcenter.org.
Berlin said parents can also find information through the N.C. Department of Public Instructions' Exceptional Children's Division.
Daniel Sevigny, Rowan County's director of restorative justice, said 60 percent of the referrals to the county's Teen Court are linked to bullying.
And many of the incidences stem from cyberbullying through Facebook or Twitter.
"Kids are on Twitter more than Facebook because parents have a harder time tracking Twitter," he said.
Sevigny said bullying spikes when students are in eighth grade and starts to taper off as enter high school, when they become the small fish in the pond again.
During his presentation, Sevigny showed an anti-bullying video created by teens who were part of the Salisbury Police Department's cadet program and the Youth Service Bureau's partner group Reclaiming Future.
The video, which was filmed in July, has received national attention since it was distributed to schools in Rowan County.
It focuses on the impact bullying can have and how students should deal with the situations.
Sevigny said he wants students to feel comfortable reporting incidents of bullying.
"They need to find that person that they can confide in, a teacher, church member, family remember, guidance counselor," he said.
Sevigny said the Rowan-Salisbury School System is currently working on an online reporting system to will allow students more privacy to share their experiences.
Schools are currently working to change the atmosphere by making bullying unacceptable, Sevigny said.
"The No. 1 problem with bullying is bystanders, the people who are standing around watching it happen," he said. "We need to empower them to step in and tell other students that's not right."
Corpening said she loved the forum Saturday.
"I always say an informed, educated parent is a great parent," she said.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.