No one ever said change is easy. We learned that from all our best public school teachers. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right – and you can bet that it’s probably going to be tough.
When House Bill 239 passed into law in 2017, our community stakeholder coalition was impressed with how far down the road of child-centered reform it promised to take us. There were caps on fines, an end to unreasonable community service assignments, and limits on the use of detention. Importantly, schools could no longer refer students to juvenile court for truancy and other low-level offenses.
Of course, with bold reform come challenges. Peer courts, juvenile court judges, school districts, and others are now navigating significant systemic change. This requires time, resources, and innovation. We agree that schools, in particular, need and deserve technical assistance, planning support and spending flexibility as they develop better approaches to truancy and other minor offenses.
A new bill from Rep. Lowry Snow, HB 132 Juvenile Justice Modifications, attempts to address their concerns. Our organizations do not oppose this bill, but we are concerned that it may slow the progress inspired by Snow’s original HB 239. We must not lose sight of the ultimate goal: to do better by our kids.
Disproportionate and overly harsh discipline in schools pushes students out of school, and into the juvenile justice system. Research shows that using the juvenile justice system to deal with kids’ emotional, mental, familial and behavioral problems is both ineffective and expensive. It produces poor outcomes for youth, as they learn to resent authority, distrust institutions and doubt themselves.
If our goal is healthier kids, stronger families, and better learning environments, before HB 239 we were on the wrong track. As taxpayers, we should ask why public funds are being used to deal with school-based offenses in court, instead of in school. As parents and caring adults, we should be deeply concerned about how these practices impact our children and families. As Utahns, we should expect more and strive for better.
Change is difficult, but it is possible. When schools approach all children as a shared community resource and responsibility, amazing things begin to unfold.
Several Utah school districts have already developed alternative approaches to dealing with truancy and other minor offenses. Some began this cultural shift well before HB 239 became law. The Salt Lake School District, for example, is transitioning to school-based mental health services, restorative justice practices and a focus on school connectedness. The Davis School District utilizes “Safe Schools” clinical teams, with free psychometric testing, and tackles all school-based misbehavior with a tiered approach that almost never results in expulsion.
At the outset of this reform effort in 2016, our stakeholder coalition presented a set of “Guiding Principles for Juvenile Justice Reform” to the state’s official Juvenile Justice Working Group. The foundation of those principles was a trauma-informed, child-centered approach: instead of asking kids who are acting out, “What is wrong with you?” we should be asking, “What is going on with you, and how can we help?” We stand by those principles, because they are working for many Utah kids already.
A child-centered approach considers the possibilities of learning disabilities; upheaval at home and in the family; severe childhood trauma such as sexual abuse or domestic violence; bullying and rejection by peers; persistent malnutrition and hunger; and many other circumstances that would cause a child to act out in school.
This approach is founded on the belief that all children belong, and that even the most disruptive kids (from whom teachers and schools need a break sometimes) deserve our time, attention and energy.
We know Rep. Snow is committed to these principles. We appreciate his tireless efforts to build bridges and find solutions for all stakeholders, including schools. But let’s not forget who this change is about: our kids. They deserve our best effort. Our families, our communities, and our state will be better for it.
Erin Jemison is the Director of Public Policy for YWCA Utah. Anna Thomas is a Senior Policy Analyst at Voices for Utah Children.