Sixteenth Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett says time away from school often lands juveniles in prison.
“They get in trouble in school, then they get in more trouble, then they get suspended, then they get expelled, then they end up in Family Court, then they become 17 years old and they end up in General Sessions Court,” said Brackett, who represents the 16th Circuit, which includes York County. “It just becomes this conveyer belt.”
Seventeen-year-olds are charged as adults in South Carolina.
The so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” is a term used by the American Civil Liberties Union and others to describe a pattern where young people are removed from school and land in prison. When a student leaves or is kicked out of school, for any reason including expulsion, it can result in them making poor decisions, said Ouida Dest, the York County deputy solicitor who works with juvenile cases.
“School failure is one of the main precursors for juvenile delinquency,” she said.
It is a pattern seen in adult court as well.
“It’s the same thing over and over again,” Brackett said. “Basically nobody cared enough to keep him in school and school was inconvenient ... Not taking your education seriously and not preparing yourself for life is going to leave you with few options… which is exactly where you become susceptible to making poor decisions like breaking the law.”
That’s why programs that target truancy are critical, Dest said. The Solicitor’s Office meets each week with representatives from the four York County school districts to review truancy cases and come up with strategies. Sometimes, the solution is as simple telling parents that they can get in trouble for their child missing school, or helping parents address not having an alarm for their child, Dest said.
“Some people have to be pushed along the way,” she said.
Dest said truancy is the most important offense the Solicitor’s office faces.
“Anything we can do to keep young people in school is going to make it better for that child, his or her family and ultimately our community,” she said. “Our relationship with the schools is a critical piece to anything we do.”
York County school districts offer alternative education programs for expelled students who have not committed violent or serious offenses, such as bringing a firearm to school, which would keep them from participating, Dest said.
“Alternative schools have helped so much,” she said. “(Students) get the benefit of continuing their education even though they aren’t able to have the privilege of being in the normal school.”
When a student is expelled, they are cut off from education, said Jim Vining, the Rock Hill school board chairman. The Rock Hill school district has been reviewing its expulsion policy since October, and discussing discipline practices. The board is set to approve an updated policy at the June 26 business meeting.
“If a student is expelled, they cannot go to another district, they cannot enroll in the virtual school that South Carolina has, they cannot enroll in most online schools and most homeschool associations will not accept them,” Vining said.
With the alternative programs, the rate of expulsion in York County has dropped “dramatically” in the last 10 years, Brackett said.
The Solicitor’s Office also offers programs to get young people back on track after a minor offense.
One such program is the Juvenile Arbitration Program, Dest said. Juvenile Arbitration targets first-time, nonviolent offenders and allows them to work with a trained citizen (or arbitrator), the victim, an officer and the juvenile’s parents to complete tasks rather than go into family court. Less than 10 percent of juveniles who go through arbitration end up committing another crime, according to the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice.
However, the Solicitor’s Office gradually makes consequences more severe if juveniles continue to get in trouble, Brackett said.
“There are some kids that will never learn no matter what … we have prisons for people like that, but a lot of these kids can be turned around,” he said.
Keeping a juvenile locked up costs more than $100,000 a year, Dest said.
It is important for schools to also ensure that cases sent to the Solicitor’s Office are indeed crimes, Dest said.
“A lot of things that, when we were coming along, would not get charged are getting charged now,” Dest told the Rock Hill school board during a recent meeting. “Our office has been trying very hard to look at other alternatives, of course keeping in mind that school safety is the number one priority.”
She said School Resource Officers need to be sure they are charging students for actual criminal offenses -- not school rule violations. That way, they are keeping the young person from having a record.
Otherwise, she said “suddenly that young person has a record that then is used against him when something else happens. Then he’s a repeat offender and that repeat offender is now on his path to prison.”
Parents also need to be involved, Brackett said.
“This isn’t about what the government can do to save these kids,” he said. “It’s about looking in the mirror and asking what you are doing to take care of your own children and make sure school is a priority....”
Amanda Harris: 803-329-4082