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The Journal Gazette

April 19, 2015 1:03 AM

Schools in state defer calling law

Rank 37th nationally in study; local program reduces truancy

Jeff Wiehe The Journal Gazette

It happens all the time throughout every state in the country. 

A high school or elementary student gets into a fight, or they steal something from the school, or they threaten someone, or they bring a weapon in their book bag to a class, or, in some of the true horror examples, they actually use that weapon. 

And then police get involved. 

Sometimes, officers need to make arrests, and the student is entered into the criminal justice system; sometimes schools decide to handle things internally. 

New data show just how often students are referred to the criminal justice system by their schools, and Indiana ranks toward the bottom in numbers.

Compared with the national average and many other states, Indiana schools do not refer many students to the criminal justice system, according to research done by the Center for Public Integrity. 

Analyzing data gleaned from the U.S. Department of Education, the center found that, on average, schools throughout the country referred 6 of 1,000 students to the criminal justice system during the 2011-12 school year. 

Nineteen states surpassed that rate, with Virginia ranking first by referring nearly 16 of every 1,000 students to what critics call the “school-to-prison pipeline.”  

Indiana ranked 37th, referring 4.2 students per 1,000 to the criminal justice system. 

Local statistics were not available for comparison, but school district and criminal justice officials said programs have been implemented and steps have been taken to eliminate – as much as possible – factors that lead to juvenile crime. 

Namely, truancy and kids falling so far behind in their learning that they have little hope of catching up. 

“Frankly, it’s a miracle there aren’t more problems,” said Allen Superior Court Judge Dan Heath, who runs the Allen County Juvenile Justice Center. “It’s amazing there isn’t more that happens.” 

Check and Connect

Heath spent 16 years in the Allen Superior Court’s Civil Division before taking over the juvenile bench in 2012.

Allen County has between 1,000 and 1,500 students truant a year, Heath said. A kid who doesn’t go to school, who has all the time during the day to sit around, has a better chance of getting into trouble with the law than a student attending school, he said. 

So he quickly went to work implementing a pilot program called Check and Connect, which was designed by the University of Minnesota more than two decades ago and has been implemented in many counties throughout the country. 

The program matches trained mentors to at-risk students attending several high schools throughout the Fort Wayne Community and East Allen Community school districts in an effort to stamp out truancy. 

In February, Heath announced the results so far of the pilot program: 

Suspensions among the 60 Fort Wayne Community Schools students in the program dropped 60 percent last fall, and tardiness dropped 41 percent, Heath told The Journal Gazette at the time.

“Ours is a pilot, it’s small,” Heath said of the program. “The numbers are very promising.” 

Heath also said business leaders in other communities, namely Bloomington, have helped similar programs because they recognize the cost to taxpayers should the youth community not perform well in school. 

Students who drop out or perform poorly have a higher chance of turning to crime than students who stay in school, according to Heath. That is why he also spearheads an early childhood development program called BrightStars.

While it’s still in the early stages, Heath last week met with parents of children who could be enrolled in the program so that officials can start helping them.  

Aside from the family dynamic, Heath said, how a child keeps up in school many times plays a big factor in whether he or she will become involved in the criminal justice system. 

“The early childhood development issue is huge,” Heath said. “These kids who don’t have benefits early on, by the time they reach kindergarten, they’re behind – and our records show they never catch up.”  

Police presence

Students in many schools become aware of a law enforcement presence early on – especially in Fort Wayne Community Schools. 

For years, the district has used Fort Wayne police officers as “school resource officers,” who are specially trained to handle juveniles and who used to be a constant presence in high schools. 

“Ideally, we do not want to have students be taken out of school by police,” district spokeswoman Krista Stockman said. “But obviously, there are times when that is necessary.” 

These officers would talk with the students, teach them to make good decisions, deal with issues and be there if a problem – such as a fight or other incident – broke out and needed to be dealt with. 

As part of a pilot program last year, a school resource officer was used in a district middle school. This year, school resource officers were moved from the high schools to the middle schools – and now nearly every middle school has a school resource officer. 

Off-duty police officers are still present and working security in the district’s high schools. 

“That type of program is more effective at a middle school level,” Stockman said. “If you wait until high school, by then – if they haven’t had any influence – it’s tougher for students to change.”

East Allen County Schools and other local districts also use school resource officers from the Allen County Sheriff’s Department and have relationships with other police forces, such as New Haven and Indiana State Police. 

“We’ve invited officers to come into our buildings, to have lunch with the kids and staff,” said Jeff Studebaker, the district’s safety manager. 

What the Center for Public Integrity also found while researching juvenile referrals to the criminal justice system, though, is that an exorbitant number of children with mental problems were being arrested. 

In Virginia, where juvenile referrals were highest, 33 “disabled” students per 1,000 were put into the system during the 2011-12 school year. In Indiana, 8 disabled students per 1,000 were referred to police or courts.

An 11-year-old diagnosed as autistic kicked a trash can in his Virginia school and was arrested for disorderly conduct, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Locally, officials are trying to combat that in a number of ways, not the least being that they try to decide on a case-by-case basis when to involve police. 

Districts in the area also use crisis intervention teams, police officers specially trained to handle incidents involving mental health issues.

When these officers come in, a child is not automatically hauled off to a juvenile detention center, but he or she may be taken to a medical treatment center where they can get appropriate care. 

“We utilize the crisis intervention team quite a bit,” Studebaker said.

This year, Fort Wayne Community Schools administrators and educators began training in a new program designed to assist young students struggling with mental health issues. 

“This is more than training. It is a philosophy and culture change within a community,” said Fort Wayne Police Officer Liza Anglin, a school resource officer with FWCS, at the time of the program’s announcement.

According to those running the program, about 70 percent of children and teens within the juvenile justice system struggle with a diagnosable psychiatric disorder.

For many of those children, experts argue, getting put into the justice system will do them no good and will lead only to more and more arrests during their lifetime. 

Only, they’ll be over 18 years old, when a prison sentence might be on the table. 

jeffwiehe@jg.net