Ask Us: What’s the status of effort to reduce court referrals?

Published 3:17 am Monday, August 17, 2020

Editor’s note: Ask Us is a weekly feature published online Mondays and in print on Tuesdays. We’ll seek to answer your questions about items or trends in Rowan County. Have a question? Email it to

In August 2019, more than 150 people gathered at the Salisbury Civic Center to help launch a new project.

Known as the School Justice Partnership, the project would focus on preventing school children from ending up in court for minor discipline issues and, potentially, in jail as adults. Besides serving as a ceremonial launch of that effort, the 2019 event in Salisbury helped educate the crowd of attendees about the school-to-prison pipeline and inequities in schools and courts. The week after its launch, then-Mayor Al Heggins convened a meeting of stakeholders to talk in greater depth about the partnership.

But it’s been one year since the launch. One Salisbury Post reader asked about the School Justice Partnership’s status and whether any progress has been made.

Like so many other things, the partnership’s work has been affected by COVID-19, but Rowan County District Judge Marshall Bickett said a final agreement is nearing completion.

Bickett, who’s a key organizer of the effort, said meetings occurred monthly until March, when K-12 public schools closed because of COVID-19. Lately, the Rowan-Salisbury School System has been focused on other priorities, including planning how to get students back to classrooms.

“But we’ve been working behind the scenes on a final memorandum of understanding,” Bickett said. “All parties have talked through it and I think everyone is pretty much in agreement. … When we last met in March, we had 99% of it done and were talking about legalese-type words.”

Depending on availability of the people involved, Bickett said it’s possible an agreement could be signed by the end of the calendar year.

He simplified the contents of the future agreement as ensuring that matters not deserving of a court hearing never end up in the juvenile justice system.

“The agreement includes what type of cases can and should come from the school system to the court system,” Bickett said. “We’re talking about guidelines or division lines. … We don’t want to divert dangerous activity.”

As an example, Bickett said that students yelling in the hallway and being disruptive shouldn’t be in court. If two students get into a fight and no one is injured, the same is true, he said.

“There are a lot of minor things that should be handled in school, unless they are extremely disruptive or present a danger,” Bickett said. “You don’t want nonviolent school offenses to be in the court system. The purpose of the juvenile system was not to punish people. To rehabilitate people is the main focus of our juvenile court system.”

Rowan County isn’t alone in its effort to create a School Justice Partnership. It’s a state initiative spearheaded by the N.C. Judicial Branch’s Administrative Office of the Courts, which says it wants local stakeholders to finalize agreements in all 100 counties. About 40 counties or school districts have finalized an agreement so far. Nine judicial districts, including Rowan’s 19C, are listed on the N.C. Judicial Branch website as developing an agreement.

Stanly County is the only neighboring community with an approved agreement, according to the state website. Its agreement proposes a tiered response to incidents and gives examples of specific times when responses are appropriate.

Teacher, classroom or school interventions are best for items like refusing to do work, dress code violations or isolated and minor acts of disobeying classroom behavioral expectations. Administrator or district interventions are appropriate for fighting, sexting, repeated behavior expectation violations and truancy. Another level called “Student-Based Team / District or Community Interventions” lists items like failure in classes, behavior problems in multiple school settings and repeated rule violations. In Stanly County’s agreement, law enforcement interventions are listed as appropriate for weapons, drugs, battery and communicating threats.

In a quote provided on the N.C. Judicial Branch’s website, Chief Justice Cheri Beasley says, “School Justice Partnerships are one of the most important investments in that success we can make. We are excited about bringing together our partners in education, in juvenile justice, and in law enforcement to help keep our kids in school where they can build toward a bright and promising future. “

Gov. Roy Cooper said communities must engage with kids to help keep them in school and out of jail.

New Hanover County, which contains Wilmington, was a leader in implementing a partnership, doing so in 2015. The School Justice Partnership’s website says local schools afterward saw a 67% reduction in school-based referrals to the criminal justice system.

J.H. Corpening, chief district judge for New Hanover and Pender counties, said it’s important to deal with minor student misconduct when and where it happens instead of pushing it out of school and “largely ignoring it.”

“After all, how many parents schedule discipline for their children 30, 60 or 90 days from the misbehavior?” Corpening said.