My Turn, Karen South Jones: Restorative practices are being used with success in Rowan

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 9, 2023

It can be tempting, when we read news articles or opinion pieces about issues impacting other parts of the country, to assume that we face the same issues locally. Such was the case when a recent writer of a letter to the editor asked: Why have restorative practices not been implemented in Rowan County to address student misbehavior and violence?

I regret that the letter writer is unaware of the depth and breadth of restorative practices that have been in use successfully in our community for well over 10 years. Restorative practices are embedded in Teen Court, an initiative which allows juveniles charged with nonviolent crimes to accept responsibility and to be held accountable for their actions, to repair the damage those actions may have caused, and to reintegrate into the community from which their actions may have separated them.

Young people in Teen Court are required to admit their guilt. During Teen Court sessions, they stand before local attorneys who serve as judges and their sentence is determined by a jury of their peers. Sentences may include personal apologies or apology letters, community service work, essays on topics relevant to their charges, and other restorative practices.

Teen Court’s emphasis is on helping young people learn from and move beyond their negative behaviors. Referrals to Teen Court come primarily from School Resource Officers or other law enforcement. From July 2012 to June 2022, Rowan County Teen Court served 766 young people and 689 of them successfully completed the court process.

Why are those numbers important? Without the option of Teen Court, those young people would have been referred to juvenile court. Research has shown that a first-time arrest during high school nearly doubles the odds of high school dropout, while a court appearance nearly quadruples the odds of dropout. This contributes to the School to Prison Pipeline, which has catastrophic consequences not only for young people but for the communities in which they live.

The letter writer also expresses concern about the use of School Resource Officers. We are fortunate in Rowan County to have extraordinarily committed men and women serving our schools in this capacity. At the request of former Chief District Court Judge Charlie Brown and former Sheriff Kevin Auten, for the past 10 years I have coordinated monthly meetings of Rowan-Salisbury Schools Resource Officers. I have observed firsthand their desire to do what is most beneficial for students, while upholding their primary responsibility to keep students and staff safe from threats both outside and within their respective campuses.

These monthly meetings provide opportunities for SROs to learn about community-based resources to which they may refer young people, to be made aware of changes to existing laws or new laws affecting young people, and to hear from and provide feedback to school personnel. In addition, they periodically receive information from sources such as the State Bureau of Investigation, which recently provided guidance on how to work with their Threat Assessment Unit in identifying and assessing potential risks.

These SROs have formed both professional and personal bonds which have resulted in levels of camaraderie not often encountered between disparate law enforcement organizations. They collaborate with and support each other during summer GREAT (Gang Resistance and Awareness Training) camps and the annual Shop with a Cop event.

Four years ago, they established the Rowan County SRO Foundation. This nonprofit organization raises funds to support those events and others designed to enhance student-law enforcement relationships, as well as providing funding for SROs to attend training. Ultimately, the Foundation hopes to raise enough money to provide annual scholarships to students interested in pursuing careers in law enforcement. To my knowledge, ours is the only SRO foundation in North Carolina and perhaps in the United States.

Rowan County has one of the lowest rates in the state for referrals by law enforcement to the juvenile justice system for school-based offenses. This is a result of the high number of incidents which are referred by School Resource Officers to Teen Court or other community-based resources. It is also a direct reflection of the intentional efforts within Rowan-Salisbury Schools to ensure that disciplinary matters are handled as such and to involve law enforcement only when other measures have been exhausted or exigent circumstances require it. School personnel and SROs work diligently to provide the most appropriate responses to student actions and, if at all possible, to avoid involving those young people in the juvenile justice system.

There always will be progress to be made in ensuring that young people in our community are treated by law enforcement, the schools and juvenile justice in age-appropriate, equitable, restorative and trauma-informed ways. I feel confident in stating that Rowan Countians should be proud of the multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional efforts we continue to pursue to ensure all young people may live healthy, safe and productive lives.

Karen South Jones is executive director of the Rowan County Youth Services Bureau and a former member of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education.