Restorative justice pilot aims to help youth

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For the past two years, a Kalispell collective of public school, restorative justice, law enforcement and juvenile probation representatives have been contributing their areas of expertise to come up with a comprehensive approach to behavior and discipline of at-risk youth.

One of the outcomes has been a restorative justice pilot program at Flathead High School that impacts how suspensions and juvenile justice offenses are handled, based in restorative practices.

The partnership was formed as part of a week of intensive training in Georgetown University’s School-Justice Partnerships Certificate Program in September 2016. At the time, the Kalispell team was one of eight selected from 48 applicants from around the country to participate in the program.

The program’s aim is to help communities “address the immediate and long-term needs of students known to, or at risk of entering, the juvenile justice system,” according to the Georgetown Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, the goal being “to promote an ongoing engagement in school among youth at risk, re-engage students who have been disconnected, and improve academic outcomes for all.”

The program trained agencies on strategies of working together to create safe, supportive environments inside and outside of schools to cultivate positive academic and social outcomes for youth at risk of negative life outcomes, or youth that may have special-education needs, behavioral problems, are involved in the child welfare system or have been placed in juvenile justice facilities.

“Kids are not just in school 24/7,” said Cassi Carr, a deputy juvenile probation officer with the state of Montana.

When school resource officers working inside schools became commonplace as a safety measure around the nation, a result was an exponential increase of youth entering the juvenile justice system, where before, an incident would be dealt with by the administration, according to Carr and Burket Kniveton, executive director for the Center for Restorative Youth Justice.

“Essentially what that pilot program does is provide alternative opportunities for youth who commit offenses on campus to be involved in a restorative-justice based program in lieu of formal justice system processing,” Kniveton explained.

The team began by drilling down on what offenses to look at. Carr said they narrowed it to minor in possession, possession of dangerous drugs and possession of drug paraphernalia. She said these are offenses that occur in high schools, but do not directly involve victims where court involvement is necessary to assess restitution, such as an assault, or theft of property, for example.

Lisa Sears, Flathead guidance counselor and a member of the Kalispell team, said the team is gathering data such as grades and attendance to establish a baseline.

“Our goal is to have high expectations and a high level of support,” Sears said. “Since the partnership began, the biggest shift has been a decrease in the number of days a student is suspended and an increase in the supports he or she receives. The supports include meetings with CRYJ and more frequent check-ins with the school counselor.”

Carr said the training at Georgetown showed how law enforcement and the juvenile justice system could be flexible with smaller offenses to foster better cooperation with youth.

“Our capstone project is essentially formalize a process that would help keep kids in school because, again, it’s all research [and] data-based — youth who are not in school are more likely to commit offenses,” Carr said.

An offense consequence on the administration side is suspension. With concerns that students potentially could be spending an out-of-school suspension in an unsupervised setting for five days, through the pilot program the suspension is broken down into three days in school and only two days out of school. Another change is that students now have the opportunity to complete missed assignments. Kniveton said students who spend a significant amount of time out of school, without an option to complete missed assignments, face setbacks not just in their grades, but can become disconnected from the community.

When a school resource officer receives a referral they write a report. As part of the pilot, instead of a direct referral to youth court, a student is referred to the Center for Youth Restorative Justice, according to Carr.

“They participate in a number of conferences and workshops here at CRYJ that focus on helping them take accountability, helping them recognize the harm that their behavior can have on themselves and the school community, and it gives them the opportunity to develop new skills so they might make decisions differently in the future,” Kniveton said.

The process from act to accountability is faster in the pilot, which is a key improvement for Carr. She explained that in the traditional process a month or two could pass from the time a report is written, to when it goes through youth court, before a student is held accountable.

“They’re adolescents. They need quick reminders often,” Carr said.

If a restorative agreement is successfully completed in 30 days, the student then meets with school counselors and administrators to come up with a plan on returning back to class. If not, charges would be considered for referral to youth court.

The moving parts of having all the agencies on the same page is a huge undertaking, Kniveton said, but a step in the right direction.

“The nuts and bolts of it takes quite a bit,” Kniveton said. “We’re talking about the school district ... the justice system ... and we’re talking about an NGO, nongovernmental system organization — CRYJ — all working together with the idea that we might be able to do some things a little bit differently to provide positive opportunities for youth, who would otherwise be at risk, or justice-system involved, [and] who would otherwise, as the data suggests, drop out at earlier rates, re-offend at higher rates, and not have the same opportunities that other students have to move forward to adulthood in a positive ways.”

The next step, Kniveton and Carr said, is making sense of the pilot program data in comparison to the traditional system.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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