A new program in the Wake County public schools aims to keep some students out of the criminal justice system.
The program is designed for students between the ages of 16-18 who commit a nonviolent misdemeanor such as petty theft or drug possession.
“We're looking to expand the tools that school resource officers and other leaders have to still hold students accountable for their behavior,” said Wake County school board member Christine Kushner, “But hopefully make sure we have also recovery opportunities for students who make mistakes.”
Rather than enter the adult court system – North Carolina is one of two states that charge 16-year-olds as adults – these students would be diverted into alternate programs such as Teen Court and mediation.
Kushner said youth contact with the judicial system, often known as the School to Prison Pipeline, has been a “rising concern” for the district in recent years. She said Wake County has implemented other policy changes in recent years that have reduced suspensions, but it wants to continue to be proactive.
“We're making progress and this is another step to give school leaders additional tools to keep students out of the adult court system,” Kushner said.
Under this program, when a student commits one of these crimes, the school resource officer will refer the student to an outside organization, Alliance Behavioral Healthcare. Students who successfully complete the program with Alliance Behavioral Healthcare will not have an arrest on their records. Students who do not complete the program may be referred back to the School Resource Officer and tried in adult court.
“There is a way to deal with student misbehavior where a law has been broken without necessarily introducing students into the criminal justice system,” said Wake County assistant superintendent Brenda Elliott.
Elliott also said this is an opportunity to prevent the negative consequences and stigmas attached to an arrest.
The program has been in the works for nearly two years and Kushner expects an official rollout within the next two months.