After one year, Juvenile Court diversion program seeks to expand

Schools focus on understanding, teaching behavior

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IOWA CITY — Start small.

That was the goal of police, school, court and other officials in the first year of a Juvenile Court diversion program that aimed to reduce the number of children in the court system. To that end, officials focused solely on cases of disorderly conduct.

Rather than face court dates and a criminal record at an early age, offenders of high school and junior high school age were given the opportunity to do community service and actions designed to make them think about their actions and consequences.

Now, as the Iowa City Community School District’s academic year draws to a close, those officials are looking back on the term — and the first year of the diversion program — and assessing its impact.

And while authorities do not yet have end-of-year numbers on the program’s success, they are confident enough in the program’s strength and shifting attitudes about juvenile discipline that they intend to expand its reach in the coming school year.

“My goal is possibly doing diversion for all simple misdemeanor crimes for juveniles,” said Gabe Cook, the Iowa City Police Department’s new juvenile crime investigator and a graduate of the Iowa City school district.

If that comes to fruition — and the initiative appears to have the support of other players in the juvenile crime diversion program — it could further reduce the number of children winding up with court records for first-time minor offenses, while also freeing up valuable court resources for children in need of greater attention and services.

The decision to expand or not will be made by representatives in the diversion program, which is made up of police, court, school and social services officials.

The offenses included in the broadened diversion program would include shoplifting, simple assault, public intoxication, possession of drug paraphernalia and possibly possession of marijuana.

“We’re able to devote more resources and more intensive attention to those kids that need more intense attention,” said Sixth Judicial District Judge Deb Minot, a former Johnson County prosecutor. “We’re siphoning off the kids who we can work with in one way and hoping it works and saving our more dedicated and more expensive resources for the kids that need a higher level of intervention.”

While the goal of the Juvenile Court system was to give children a chance at receiving intervention without a formal court record, Minot said that is not what is occurring now. Minor offenses remain on children’s criminal records as they enter adulthood.

Under the diversion program, which began at the onset of the 2014-15 school year, police don’t respond to the first instance of disorderly conduct, providing it’s not a major fight or disruption and the juvenile doesn’t have an extensive previous record.

In those cases, students instead complete a “stop and think” program that requires them to reflect on the incident and why it happened. Iowa City schools also provide mentors for some students — teachers, community members or law enforcement — who can check on students’ grades and spend time with them over lunch or riding along in a police car.

That approach has allowed teachers and administrators to learn more about the reasons for students’ behaviors and has improved behavior in school overall, officials said.

“I’ve seen huge dividends pay off from this,” said Michelle Cook, Gabe Cook’s wife and assistant principal of South East Junior High School. “Getting kids connected to school makes them feel better about themselves. When they feel better about themselves, they’re less likely to misbehave.”

For subsequent offenses that do involve police, officials determine if court diversion is appropriate, If so, juveniles typically will do community service and write a victim-impact letter as well as a sheet designed to walk them through their actions and decision-making.

“It keeps them from being in the court system,” Gabe Cook said. “But, these kids are not getting away with it.”

Minot was a member of a group of local officials who participated in Georgetown University’s Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Juvenile Justice Certificate program in 2013. The intensive five-day sessions seeks to teach participants how to reduce minority contact with the juvenile justice system.

“The whole point was that disproportionality is not one system or agency’s problem, it’s everybody’s problem,” Minot said. “Until you got everybody to the table ... you wouldn’t be able to handle that problem. That was the insight, the epiphany everybody had.”

Officials at South East Junior High have seen reduced disproportionality this year, Michelle Cook said.

“It was not just about making the numbers look better because anybody can do that,” Michelle Cook said. “If we truly want to see the decline in disproportionality, then we truly need to see a reduction in the disproportionality of the behaviors, not just the consequences.”

Iowa City Police Sgt. Kevin Bailey, the former juvenile crime investigator who helped implement the diversion program, said it’s too early to tell if the anticipated overall decrease in Juvenile Court cases is a result of the diversion program, different approaches to school discipline or something else. He said Gabe Cook and others will continue to assess and change the program as they see fit.

“We’ve had growing pains,” Bailey said. “This isn’t ‘Kumbaya.’ This is a work in progress.”

Schools also have made their definitions of behaviors and consequences more consistent, Michelle Cook said. And teachers and administrators are working on understanding cultural differences between themselves and their students, which may factor into how they view students’ behavior, said Joan VandenBerg, the school district’s youth and family development coordinator.

At South East, discipline referrals this school year were down 50 percent compared to the previous year, Michelle Cook said. Including theft offenses in the diversion program could have a significant effect on schools, VandenBerg said.

Michelle Cook and VandenBerg said they support the idea that discipline can be about teaching, not just consequences.

“We kind of want to get to some of the underlying issues to address why this kid is reacting in this way,” VandenBerg said. “Every kid, you have to do a little bit of detective work to understand exactly what’s going on with them.”

Judge Minot said the Georgetown instructors told their group to have a long view on the program and advised them it could be three to five years before they see significant changes. Still, she already is excited about the early returns on the initiative.

“My personal feeling is, if we diverted one child of color and at the end of the year, there was one fewer kid that has a juvenile record, then I think we’re successful,” she said. “If I find out ... that it was five or 10 or 13, then I’m going to be thrilled because we couldn’t figure out how to do any of that before.”

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