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Hale Opio Kauai Teen Court changes lives

Editor’s note: This week the Corner welcomes guest author Esther Solomon, the Hale Opio Teen Court manager. She is sharing an outline of how teen court works, and what she has observed as a new trend in the Juvenile Justice System regarding school suspension. Thanks Esther, and if others who work with youth on our island have information to share, and would like to have it recognized, please email Annaleah Atkinson at aatkinson@haleopio.org

The school year is well into its second month and Hale Opio Kauai Teen Court referrals are on the rise. Teen Court receives referrals from the Kauai Police Department and the Office of the Juvenile Prosecutor for first time misdemeanor offenses committed by children between the ages of 10 to 17 years old.

Rather than sending these cases to family court, Class A juvenile offenses such as assault 3, promoting detrimental drugs, and criminal property camage; Class B offenses such as harassment, theft 3 and 4 and disorderly conduct; and Class C offenses such as truancy, runaway and curfew violations are referred to teen court.

In order to participate in teen court, the child must admit that he or she committed the offense and is voluntarily accepting to participate in teen court.

The child is then scheduled for an intake interview, to hear the child and family’s side of the incident. Shortly after the child will have a sentencing hearing at which time the child is held accountable for his or her offense and is sentenced by a jury of his or her peers to a variety of restorative consequences.

These sentencing items may include apology letters, reflective essays, community service, classes in empathy, conflict resolution and positive decision-making, counseling, and a number of sessions as a juror on a jury for a future offender.

During the child’s time as a juror, teen court staff and volunteers provide them with jury training, teach them courtroom protocol and behavior, formal letter writing and encourage them to take on the role of courtroom clerk, defense attorney, state’s attorney, jury foreperson and bailiff.

The entire courtroom proceeding is managed by the youth, except for the adult judge who is a volunteer Kauai Family Court judge or attorney who oversees the legal procedure for the sentencing hearing, and Hale Opio staff supervision.

The teen jurors decide the sentence and the judge has little to no influence on the verdict.

Additionally, at the beginning of each school year and when the children return to school from winter break, we engage the children in a discussion on Chapter 19, the disciplinary policy for the Hawaii Department of Education and answer questions that might arise from this discussion.

It is usually the first time the child has looked at this complete document though it is mentioned at school and all youth receive a two-page abbreviated version.

It is a complicated document and over 30 pages long. It is unrealistic to believe a student or parent is familiar with the intricate disciplinary policies for public school children in the state of Hawaii.

Most children know how to behave in school. Kauai has 4,700 children enrolled in public middle and high schools. According to the Kauai attorney general’s office 630 detainments are made by Student Resource Officers at these schools. Teen court receives 145 to 250 referrals every year. More than three quarters of teen court referrals are a result from some negative behavior at public school.

When a child is referred to teen court because of a criminal offense at school, the school usually has already placed the child on out-of-school suspension for anywhere between one to 92 days. Parents who feel that this is too harmful for their child, or unfair can follow an appeal process. However, it must be submitted in writing and received by the complex area’s school superintendent’s office by the close of business of the seventh school day, after they’ve received their discipline notice.

Sadly for these students, suspension is the most widely used disciplinary technique in both general and special education. The children who have been placed on lengthy out-of-school suspensions receive alternative education opportunities such as after-school programs that allow them to attend school several days a week for 1½ to 3 hours for each day they attend.

Many children and their families take advantage of this opportunity, however, the disruption to the daily life of family and child, and to the educational life of the child is extremely consequential. Every child I speak to who has been suspended for over 10 days expresses a real desire to be reinstated at school: to join their friends and teachers, to take part in extra-curricular activities and not to fall behind in their school work.

Unfortunately, national studies have shown that for every three to five days of school missed in a month, this can impact a child’s education by one grade. These studies also reveal that out-of-school suspensions contribute to poor academic achievement, high drop-out rate and rarely address or prevent the underlying cause of the misbehavior that resulted in the out of school suspension. National studies have also shown that children with disabilities are more at risk of suspension than children without disabilities.

Many of the referrals we receive in teen court are students who have special educational and developmental needs and are often children from low socio-economic and minority backgrounds. These children are the most vulnerable to academic failure. The most vulnerable members of our student population are the students who already face the greatest academic achievement challenge and, at the same time, are the population that most often receives out-of-school suspension.

These are the very children who would benefit from more instructional time to reduce their educational gap rather than less instructional time. To weaken their bonds with their school community and exclude them from their social milieu contributes to their disconnecting from school and undermines their value of education.

Unless there are measures in place that help teenagers and young adults develop skills to make good decisions, understand cooperation and teamwork and enhance empathy and increase self-control, we are expecting them to have already developed skills that they are still acquiring.

It would seem that the correct path would be helping them acquire these skills rather than punishing them for not yet having developed them. Integrating concepts of fairness, cooperation, self-control, empathy and equity into subject matter taught at school and into our interactions at home may go a long way toward keeping the peace at school and in our neighborhoods.

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Hale Opio Kauai convened a support group of adults in our Kauai community to “step into the corner” for our teens, to answer questions and give support to youth and their families on a wide variety of issues. Please email your questions or concerns facing our youth and families today to Annaleah Atkinson at aatkinson@haleopio.org For more information about Hale Opio Kauai, please go to www.haleopio.org

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