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Salisbury mayor hosts stakeholder meeting for School Justice Partnership

SALISBURY — With eyes on a Dec. 1 implementation of North Carolina’s Raise the Age law, a group of community stakeholders gathered Tuesday at Salisbury Mayor Al Heggins’ invitation.

They included municipal leaders and administrators, law enforcement officers, nonprofit organization leaders, school system personnel and more, all coming together with hopes to answer the question: What can be done to reduce the number of juveniles who end up in the court system?

Enter the concept of a School Justice Partnership, a partnership of educators, school resource officers, the court system and others in an effort to develop personalized, community-cognizant strategies to help discipline for minor infractions remain on school grounds rather than in courtrooms.

Rowan County District Court Judge J. Marshall Bickett explained the importance of the endeavor.

“The juvenile court system is one of the most important things that we do. It’s important that we find ways to divert kids away so they don’t have to come here,” Bickett said. “There are bad people, and they are exposed to bad things when they have to come (to court).”

As the community looks toward developing a new model for dealing with minor juvenile offenses, the group heard from New Hanover County Chief District Court Judge J.H. Corpening, who has seen the School Justice Partnership in practice for three years.

Corpening stumbled across the new method years ago, saying what appealed to him about the community effort was the notion of school safety as well as its benefit to kids’ education. Less time in juvenile court means less time out of school, he said.

“There’s only one road out of poverty, and that’s through the schoolhouse,” he said. “Our kids legitimately are our future, … and what our community will look like in 10 to 15 years is what our high schools look like now.”

He said the community needs to ask itself a question: If children are viewed as a crop, how well is the community tending its farm?

“Are we sowing weeds or plants? Are we going to have a good harvest, or are we about to have a famine?” he asked.

School Justice Partnerships are meant to ensure a good harvest, he said, and they are based on relationships and trauma-informed discipline.

Corpening called the first step of the partnership a mindset shift. People working with youths need to start asking student offenders “What happened to you?” rather than “What did you just do?” he said.

Other vital facets of the partnerships include taking an honest look at data and disparities. There are four groups of youths disproportionately referred to the juvenile justice system: those of color, those in foster care, those with educational disabilities and those who identify as LGBTQ.

“Those are all groups of children who need to be in school,” he said.

Corpening also spoke on the importance of readjusting disciplinary actions to match the cognitive development of students. Children’s brains are still developing into their mid-20s, he said — with impulsivity at its highest around 10 to 11 years of age.

An innate attraction to risk-taking peaks at 16 to 17 years of age, with the perception of long-term consequences at its lowest then as well.

And these are precisely the individuals that have the potential to flood the juvenile justice system when the Raise the Age legislation takes effect on Dec. 1, as 16- and 17-year-old offenders will no longer be tried as adults.

With the framework set, the group left City Hall on Tuesday prepared to continue the conversation with those who will be acting on Corpening’s so-called mindset shift.

The meeting, said Heggins, was one of many examples demonstrating the deep work happening in Salisbury.

“I’m honored to work with Judge Bickett to convene and continue this important justice initiative to keep our students in school,” Heggins said. “The School Justice Partnership convening lets our community and beyond know Salisbury is a place that values keeping school-aged youth on a bright path to success.”

Mayor Pro Tem David Post, also in attendance, agreed.

“The most important asset we have as a community is our young people,” Post said. “Anything we can do to keep them on the right track before they’ve gone off on the wrong track should be a priority not just in our city but in our state and country.”

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