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Citizens discuss Rowan School Justice Partnership’s draft agreement

By Shavonne Potts
shavonne.potts@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — A small group of citizens and members of the local justice system assembled in an online forum Wednesday night to discuss strategies to address misconduct within the school system.

The Rowan School Justice Partnership, formed in 2019, hosted the meeting Wednesday via Zoom to get feedback from the community about its draft memorandum of understanding. Its goal is to keep school-age children out of the court system for minor discipline issues.

The group heard from justice system partners, including District Court Judge Marshall Bickett, District Attorney Brandy Cook, Rowan Sheriff Kevin Auten and Salisbury Police Chief Jerry Stokes. The group also heard from Kelly Withers, associate superintendent of Rowan-Salisbury Schools; Melissa Marshburn Bunker, a regional executive with Cardinal Innovations; and David Wall, the chief juvenile court counselor. Wall covers Rowan, Montgomery, Cabarrus, Moore, and Randolph counties.

The School Justice Partnership group has found in 2019-2020 school year data that in Rowan County school-based referrals make up 32% of referrals to the juvenile justice system. Most school-based complaints are not criminal or misdemeanors.

“We’re trying to limit the cases coming to juvenile court,” Bickett said.

Some steps had already been in place for some time, as Sheriff Auten and Chief Stokes noted limiting the roles of school resource officers and letting the schools handle the nonviolent/noncriminal offenses.

“I’m a firm believer in avoiding that classroom-to-prison pipeline,” Stokes said.

He said SROs are in the schools for two purposes — security on campus as well as to mentor and provide a positive influence for students.

“Things do come up that are significant and those are violent crime acts and that’s not a slap fight in the hallway, then the SRO can act on that,” he said.

Auten said he wanted to make sure the Sheriff’s Office was consistent in the discipline of students across schools. For instance, students who are disciplined for a particular offense at one school should not receive a different disciplinary action had he or she committed a similar offense at another school.

Wall estimated that 50% of juvenile complaints in the court system come from the schools.

Karen South Jones, executive director of Rowan County Youth Services Bureau and facilitator of the meeting, said there’s a disparity among Black students when it came to discipline. According to statistics provided by SJP, Black students are four times more likely than their white counterparts to be expelled or suspended.

Jones said the group wants to make sure every child has the same opportunities when it comes to referral services.

The Rev. Olen Bruner asked about participation from minorities and clergy and if organizers worked to get input from them.

“And now that you’ve created this document we must now work with this document. If you need other Black clergy or people we can find some folks. There are people out there who are concerned,” Bruner said.

Bickett said an initial meeting was organized by himself and then-Mayor Al Heggins. Bickett said he’d love participation from the Black community and clergy. He said the group is only working from a draft that can be changed and should be changed if what they are implementing isn’t working.

The goal for the group is to have the Memorandum of Understanding signed by December, selecting the members of the process mentoring team and establish a regular meeting schedule.

The partnership also wants to collect data to see what’s working.

For more information or to provide input about the draft memorandum of understanding, go to rowanschooljusticepartnership.org.

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