My Turn, Susan Lee: Community involvement key for School Justice Partnership

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 26, 2021

By Susan Lee

The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education is revisiting the design and implementation of the Rowan County School Justice Partnership. 

A core component of the SJP is a memo of understanding (MOU) drafted collaboratively by the school system, law enforcement, and the courts. While the MOU forms the core of the School Justice Partnership, it does not encompass the entire purpose or promise of it. 

Consistent discipline policies and procedures are key to this effort. However, the full spirit of a community-based partnership rests deeply in the process by which the policies and procedures are developed and evaluated. The greater intention of School Justice Partnerships is to create a community-wide understanding and effort to keep students in school and out of court. We do this so they can succeed not only in school, but in all facets of community life. Together, we can hold a greater collective vision than simply keeping students out of courts. But, this vision can only be as wide, diverse and inclusive as those who are involved in creating the partnership.

Creating Rowan County’s School Justice Partnership offers the opportunity for a broader collaborative vision for students and families at risk for court involvement. Together, we can ensure student success in life by identifying and eliminating the root causes and circumstances that put students at risk for court involvement. Including the people closest to these issues and most affected by them is key to understanding them. For this reason N.C. courts names parents and students’ family members as essential team stakeholders of school justice partnerships.

N.C. courts also recommend including representatives of community members disproportionately affected by juvenile justice issues. By definition, community members are those who live, work, play, worship and otherwise know and care daily for students and their families. It is important to note that the term “community partners” which appears frequently in the October 2020 draft of the MOU most often identifies non-profit businesses funded to provide mental health or other services. The term should not be construed as persons who necessarily comprise or represent members of students’ families and communities.

RSS’s Racial Equity Report Cards provided by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice indicate disciplinary outcomes that disproportionately affect students of color. This leads me to assume that local community members disproportionately affected have been involved in establishing Rowan County’s SJP. Because information about the process of creating Rowan’s SJP is not widely available, this remains an assumption.

Several concerns stem from a lack of readily available information about the process of forming Rowan County’s School Justice Partnership, including who participated and to what degree. Citizens would benefit from transparency about the entire process, including the availability and use of funding. It’s important to know if the process was intentionally diverse and inclusive, going beyond token representation. It’s important to know if any of the over $941,000 provided by RSS for law enforcement will go toward specialized training available for School Resource Officers, including trauma-informed discipline. Given the disproportionate impact on students of color of current disciplinary practices, it’s important to know if the partnership team includes RSS’ director of equity, especially in the ongoing evaluation of the partnership’s practices and outcomes.

As Rowan’s citizens seek further information and opportunities for participatory input in creating the Rowan County School Justice Partnership, the greater vision and promise of success that close and intentional community collaboration offers is sure to benefit us all. To learn more abut School Justice Partnerships visit SJP.nccourts.gov.

Susan Lee is co-chair of the community group Actions in Faith and Justice.

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