Student arrests

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: June 23 2013 | 12:01 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 4:56 pm in
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By The Gazette Editorial Board

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Staff at Iowa City’s City High started the 2012-13 school year with a list prominently displayed on poster board in the break room, including the names of each of the school’s nearly 1,400 students.

Over the first two weeks of school, staff crossed off the names of students about which they could honestly say they had a positive relationship. Then they divvied up the names that were left — those students who might not feel as connected to the school community — and sought them out in the hopes of deliberately building a mentoring connection.

“We were really able to say that everybody in that building had somebody they could go to.” Principal John Bacon told us this week.

It’s one of the proactive measures Bacon credits with his school’s low rate of police involvement in cases of student misconduct. It also brings to light an important consideration that’s been lost in recent discussions about whether or not the Iowa City school district should take advantage of federal assistance to hire sworn police officers for the district’s two comprehensive high schools.

That idea has been tabled, for now, in the face of community concerns that consistent police presence could lead to more students, especially minority students, facing criminal sanctions for misbehavior. Critics are right to be worried about unnecessarily involving kids in the Juvenile Court system, which can have long-lasting ramifications for those students.

But a review of Cedar Rapids and Iowa City school policies and Juvenile Court statistics suggests those policies, not the presence or absence of School Resource Officers, may be at least as important in reducing criminal charges against students.

Even more important: Maintaining a supportive school environment that prevents student fights and misbehaviors in the first place.

Prevention, not punishment

National statistics show that even though juvenile crime, generally, has been waning for more than a decade, school referrals resulting in criminal charges against youth are on the rise. News reports about zero-tolerance policies and the “school to prison pipeline” seem to describe a disturbing trend of increasing numbers of students facing criminal charges for misbehavior at school.

And while it is true that school fights account for a significant number of criminal charges against local juveniles (see adjacent tables), Linn County delinquency complaints have fallen sharply in last five years — from 1,930 complaints in 2007 to 1,396 in 2011, according to data from Linn County Juvenile Court Services.

Long-term, school-specific statistics are not available (the Juvenile Court system only began tracking complaints by school building about a year ago), but court and Cedar Rapids school officials say they think charges stemming from school incidents also have declined.

That’s been true even in the past few years, as school resource officers have begun working at the district’s three comprehensive high schools.

“The SROs are trying to keep kids out of the system,” said Cedar Rapids Jefferson Principal Charles McDonnell. “It’s kind of like having an extra counselor.”

Administrators at all three comprehensive Cedar Rapids district high schools said the majority of their resource officers’ time is spent on prevention — building relationships with students and being a calming presence — not punishment.

“We dealt with fights before and if we had a kid who needed charges, we’d call police and they’d come on over,” McDonnell said. “We don’t have more charges because we’ve got an SRO in the building. We probably have fewer.” He said that suspensions and other disciplinary referrals have also been trending down since the resource officer began.

Administrators at all three high schools said the decision to charge a student — usually for drugs or alcohol, theft or, most commonly, fighting — is based on school policy and victim request, not the presence or absence of an SRO.

WHEN to charge

In Cedar Rapids, those policies vary slightly by school, especially when it comes to fighting. At Washington and Kennedy, administrators told us it’s not uncommon for students to face disorderly conduct charges for fighting — a practice that predates the addition of an SRO.

At Jefferson, students don’t generally face criminal charges for their first fight, McDonnell told us. School policy there is to have those kids write a letter of apology. If the fight results in injury or is part of a pattern of behavior, then they’d likely face a charge.

That distinction may be a factor in Jefferson’s relatively low number of charges against students during the 2012-13 school year. That year, through April 30 (the most recent data available), there were 23 total charges originating at Jefferson, which has a population of just under 1,500 students. Washington, with a slightly smaller student population, had 32 charges. Kennedy, which has a larger student population, had 39 charges, according to Juvenile Court records.

In Iowa City, where schools are governed by a detailed district policy about when to involve law enforcement in student incidents, those numbers were even lower.

At West High — with more than 1,900 students, the largest of the five schools — there were 22 charges against students resulting from school-related incidents as of April 30, according to Juvenile Court records. At City High, there were eight.

the right questions

Those numbers are only snapshots, and surely influenced by a number of factors. But they do raise important questions about how schools might better minimize student entry into the juvenile justice system, regardless of whether school resource officers are involved.

Iowa City schools’ policy regarding fighting and reports to law enforcement takes into account injury, premeditation, public disruption and responsiveness to intervention. Principals at both high schools said they require two administrators to agree an incident warrants a call to call law enforcement, to be sure the decision is impartial and fair.

Data about school reports to law enforcement are included in an annual safety and climate report submitted for school board review.

“We call the police for help here as a very, very last resort,” said West High Principal Jerry Arganbright. “Anything that we can resolve, short of calling the police, we do.”

There are good reasons for doing so: Research shows that juvenile involvement with the court system can actually lead to deeper involvement with the courts, 6th Judicial District Chief Juvenile Court Officer Candice Bennett said: “It’s easier every time.”

Most juvenile delinquent acts are impulsive, not deliberate. The way schools, parents and police respond can help determine whether a youth sees that impulsive act as a one-time mistake, or an important part of who they are.

Those philosophical and policy decisions are much larger, and somewhat different from, the question of whether or not school resource officers should be stationed in our schools.

They also have the greater potential for keeping our kids out of trouble, and our communities safe.

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