RSS Board of Education discusses latest draft of school justice partnership

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 26, 2021

SALISBURY — Rowan-Salisbury Schools is moving ahead with a school justice partnership with law enforcement and the local judiciary, but it’s facing some scrutiny from community members.

The stated purpose of the partnership is to “keep students in schools and out of courts.” The partnership is part of a state push to get similar agreements created in every county after the minimum age for adult criminal prosecution was increased from 16 to 18 in the state in 2019.

The latest draft of a memorandum of understanding was added to the agenda for the Rowan-Salisbury Schools Board of Education meeting on Monday and several people spoke during a public comment period with questions about the partnership.

A recurring point of concern for commenters was the inclusiveness of the process for creating the partnership. Currently, the draft has signature lines for RSS Board Chair Kevin Jones and Superintendent Tony Watlington, Chief District Court Judge Charlie Brown, District Attorney Brandy Cook as well as officials from local law enforcement, safety and social services agencies and a representative of Cardinal Innovations. Cardinal is the local managed care organization.

Olen Bruner, a retired local pastor who is co-chair of the group Actions in Faith and Justice, said community members came to the meeting to “take their place at the table.”

“Last year when the meeting took place, I was told that I could be a part of the MOU,” Bruner said.

Bruner said the partnership was looking for community participants to take part and that he could help.

“I can get community people together. That’s what I do. I know the community,” Bruner said.

He told the board picking and choosing who takes part is not in the best interest of anyone other than those who are satisfied with business as usual.

Susan Lee, another speaker who leads Actions in Faith and Justice, gave her thanks to the people who prepared the memo and said the greater promise of the partnership is to challenge people to respond to criminal behavior as needed and disrupt the “criminalization of local youth.”

“To meet this greater challenge, Rowan County must create an authentic community-wide partnership,” Lee said, adding people involved should look around at who is not represented and provide them seats at the table.

One commenter asked if school resource officers receive specific training for their roles. Travis Allen, a school board member and investigator with the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office, said the deputies receive intensive training on interacting with students.

The 13-page school justice partnership outlines a collective agreement between the parties involved in law enforcement at schools. Chief Student Services Officer April Kuhn told the board RSS has separate memorandums of understanding with each law enforcement agency it works with, but there is no document with an overarching agreement between the district, the agencies and the judicial system. The school justice partnership aims to fix that.

Included in the draft agreement is an outline of the role of law enforcement in schools. For school resource officers, the draft MOU says their roles are to maintain school and public safety.

For non-school resource officers, the draft says they should try to act in consultation with school administrators when they have activity planned on campus. They should interview students away from school grounds “regarding non-school related matters, unless an investigation involves the parent/guardian,” the draft agreement states.