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Our Opinion: In-school arrests in Wilson County call for a solution

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Shouting at a teacher, shoving a classmate in the hallway or swiping a snack from the cafeteria used to land kids in the principal’s office. Now these youthful indiscretions send them to jail.

Misbehavior is increasingly — and often inappropriately — treated as crime in American schools, a trend that coincides with the widespread introduction of school resource officers following the 1999 Columbine shooting. Mass arrests feed the school-to-prison pipeline, a phenomenon that sends too many graduates into society with criminal records, starting their adult lives at a profound disadvantage.

The signs have been there for years — incredulous news stories about youngsters hauled off in handcuffs for bringing nail clippers or plastic cutlery to school. Children and teens caught in the dragnet of misguided zero-tolerance policies that forbid taking individual circumstances into account.

Apologists call this a tough, no-nonsense approach, but it’s just fearful and senseless. Teachers and administrators used to command respect and handle garden-variety school discipline on their own. With cops around the corner, it’s become too easy to pass the buck.

“Police most often arrest students for relatively minor misbehaviors, with misdemeanors comprising more than 90 percent of lead charges against arrested students,” Kerrin C. Wolf wrote in a 2013 study for the Northwestern Journal of Law & Social Policy.

Students can face double jeopardy — after their parents post their bond at the county jail or retrieve them from juvenile detention centers, they get detention, suspension or expulsion on top of the criminal charges.

School resource officers aren’t going anywhere; in fact, we need more of them to keep our K-12 campuses safe from would-be attackers. They can protect students and faculty and serve as mentors to troubled youths. But breaking out the handcuffs for the kind of low-level shenanigans that used to result in study hall or a swift paddling is a poor use of our SROs.

Instead of a stern principal, teacher or coach dispensing life lessons along with punishment, teens get a tour de force of the grownup criminal justice system. A conviction can keep them out of college, prevent them from joining the military and place good-paying jobs out of reach. Overreactions start a chain of events that make it more likely young adults will turn to a life of crime.

Wilson County can slow the school-to-prison pipeline’s gush to a trickle. The blueprints have been drawn up, and three neighboring communities are already on board.

Stakeholders in Wayne County launched a School Justice Partnership program on Thursday, joining Greene and Lenoir counties as eastern North Carolina’s vanguard for an innovative solution to the growing problem of in-school arrests.

Overseen by the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, the SJP program unites school administrators, law enforcement leaders and judges to keep kids in school and out of court. Those officials form PACTS — Partnership Agreement Community Teams with Schools — that establish commonsense school policies and diversion programs.

“This School Justice Partnership Agreement is the result of a collaboration among key stakeholders who recognize the need to respond to school discipline with swift appropriate action, while also avoiding the unintended consequence of saddling kids with permanent criminal records for minor student misconduct,” District Court Judge Ericka James said in a statement.

James and Wayne County Chief District Court Judge R. Les Turner were on hand for an SJP kickoff ceremony last week, joined by the local superintendent and school board chairwoman, the Wayne County sheriff and the Goldsboro police chief.

School Justice Partnerships are modeled after a successful program in Clayton County, Georgia, that reduced juvenile court referrals by more than 67 percent and boosted graduation rates by a stunning 24 percent. In North Carolina, New Hanover County has already cut its student referrals to juvenile court in half after implementing the SJP for a year.

Collaboration leads to an outcome that leaves everyone involved in school discipline better off. Well-trained SROs are mentoring students and keeping schools secure instead of arresting teens for small-time stuff. Good kids who go astray are getting a second chance to straighten up and fly right. And teachers and principals are seeing more of their students walk across the stage to claim diplomas.

Greene, Lenoir and Wayne counties have already seen the light. We expect Wilson County Schools to be a leader in public education — so why don’t we have a School Justice Partnership here?

Parents can pose that question to school board members today. The Wilson County Board of Education will hold its 7:30 p.m. monthly meeting at 117 Tarboro St. NE.

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