Members from both the Duke and Durham communities are working toward protecting students from a downwards spiral into the criminal justice system.

Durham officials recently proposed a revised misdemeanor punishment process for 16- and 17-year-olds. Under this diversion project, some minors who commit misdemeanors may avoid a criminal record provided they complete community service and educational programs instead. The opportunity to participate in the diversion program is limited to first-time offenders, said Marcia Morey, Durham County Chief District Court Judge.

In response to the state of minor punishment in North Carolina, a group of Duke students have elected to raise awareness about disciplinary sanctions in public schools.
Students at the Center for Documentary Studies created a short film Fall semester called “North Carolina’s School-to-Prison Pipeline,” illustrating how “no tolerance” and suspension polices can push students out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

Keeping the records clean

By allowing first-time juvenile offenders the opportunity to have misdemeanors removed from their criminal records, Durham officials hope to give young offenders a fresh start.

“In North Carolina, 16- and 17-year-olds do not have many of the rights that adults have—they can’t drink, vote or sign contracts, for example—yet they are tried as adults when it comes to criminal charges,” Morey said. “This is not fair to them and having a criminal record is detrimental to their future.”

There are volunteering, life skills and mediation programs already in place and a coordinator has been hired to monitor the performance of the teens and to inform their compliance back to law enforcement, said Gudrun Parmer, director of the Durham County Criminal Justice Resource Center. There will also be meetings in the courthouse that teach the teens about the legal system and the unintended consequences of breaking the law, Parmer added.

In 2012, more than 600 16- and 17-year-olds in Durham were charged with misdemeanors. The diversion program, once implemented later this year, will be able to help about 500 teenagers each year, Morey said. Misdemeanors that involve traffic, sexual assault and firearms are excluded from the project in addition to second and subsequent offenses.

Upon receiving referrals from law enforcement, the CJRC will conduct screenings to verify the eligibility of the participants, and subsequently divert them to the appropriate service programs, Parmer said.

A number of relevant parties—including the Durham Police Department, Durham County Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney’s Office—support and are involved in developing the diversion program, Morey said.

“Sheriff [Michael] Andrews is committed to the betterment of the community and really wanted to reach out to the youths in the county,” said Durham County Sheriff's Lieutenant Raheem Aleem. “Because of him, we strive towards ‘thinking out of the box’ in this manner."

The criminal system is inundated with minor misdemeanors that could be handled differently, Aleem said. The system can be improved by providing some of these teens with a second chance.

“We want to prevent youths from getting on the negative side of the law and allow them to have a positive future,” said Durham Police Department Chief Jose Lopez.

Although there have been other programs intended to reduce the number of arrests by providing alternative options to offenders, this newly proposed diversion program functions on a case-by-case basis and tailors to the needs of individual teenagers, Lopez said.

Parmer noted that the CJRC is currently working on educating its personnel about the rules associated with eligibility and making sure that the right programs are in place.

“The biggest challenge is helping these young people understand the benefits of the program and the importance of abiding by the law,” she said. “This is a one-time opportunity and if they commit another crime, there will be no second chance then.”

Lopez noted he is optimistic that the plan will become a reality.

“I am hopeful that the community will get behind this initiative and that social services funding will be available to make this happen,” he said.

Students shed light on issues

As part of the course “Video for Social Change” and in partnership with Youth Justice North Carolina—an organization focused mainly on fighting the direct path from schools to prisons—16 students decided to focus on the issue of excessive school discipline to help reduce the number of unnecessary misdemeanors and suspensions students face locally.

“We did highlight what we felt is critically important,” said sophomore Hannah McCracken, a member of the production group. “Children are actually hurt by these policies.”

The film was shown Thursday evening to a crowd of about 200 people, many of whom were sitting on floors and in aisles in the crowded lecture hall in the Sanford School of Public Policy. Following the film, a five-person panel answered questions about the film and the issue.

There is more of a need for a spotlight to a large community of students and a motivation to learn more,” said Mark Trustin, a YJNC board member and attorney who introduced the film.

The film featured students, educators and legal experts, many of whom emphasized that suspending students results in negative circumstances and more productive solutions can be found. Additionally, black students are disproportionately affected by the policies—they are 4.2 times more likely to be suspended than white students and therefore miss four times as much school, according to the film and the N.C. Department of Education.

“I haven’t found any evidence that school suspension is an effective discipline tool,” said Jane Wettach, professor of education law and director of the Children’s Law Clinic, in the film.

Wettach also explained that most of the suspensions in schools are not a result of serious offenses such as bringing weapons to school. Most suspensions, in fact, are due to breaking the rules of class or being disruptive or disrespectful, and can result in the student going to court.

“Should we really be kicking kids out of school for these kinds of things?” Wettach said. “It’s just not productive.”

People featured in the film—including local students—attended the event and were recognized by the panelists and audience.

The panel was composed of Elaine Dillahunt, a retired educator; James Key, area superintendent for Durham Public Schools high school curriculum, instruction and school improvement; Peggy Nicholson, a staff attorney for the Advocates for Children’s Services of Legal Aid of NC; Martina Dunford, New Horizons Academy of Excellence principal; and Morey. The latter two panelists were also featured in the film. The panel was moderated by Barbara Fedders, clincial associate professor of law at the UNC School of Law and senior Amanda Young.

“We need to provide resources for teachers and administrators to have for the students,” Dillahunt said.

Key especially expressed the need for alternative policies in schools that hold students accountable for their actions but keep them out of the criminal justice system.

“We still have a good ways to go,” he said. “We’re working with our families and communities to find viable alternatives to suspension.”