Restorative justice program aims to rehabilitate, not incarcerate
By Sabrina Winkel
MANTI—In the past, when a student was chronically absent from school, or was caught smoking on the school grounds, or committed other offenses that are against the law for people under 18, schools could refer the youth to juvenile court.
But because of HB239, a bill passed by the Utah Legislature in 2017 and a measure that was part of the general criminal justice reform movement in the state, schools are much more limited in their ability to refer students to juvenile court.
In fact, the option of sending a troubled or troublesome youth to cool off for a few days at the Central Utah Youth Center in Richfield no longer exists. As part of juvenile justice reform, youth center is now closed.
So both the North Sanpete and South Sanpete school districts have come up with alternatives. The districts call new interventions the “Restorative Justice Program,” which reflects the goal of “restoring” troubled youth to compliance with laws and rule, rather than punishing them.
The South Sanpete district has set up a team of part-time employees, with Kyle Parry, a former juvenile court probation officer, as the coordinator.
The part-time employees are Americorp volunteers, participants in a federal program under which individuals volunteer to do public service work for 10 months and receive a modest stipend, typically about $13,500 per year, plus a college scholarship upon completion of the service. The school district pays some matching funds toward compensation for the volunteers.
Last year, the district had seven Americorp volunteers. This year, because of budget constraints, the number is down to four.
Each Americorp employee is assigned a list of students who are having problems, says Kent Larsen, superintendent in the South Sanpete district. The students could be in elementary, middle or high schools.
Most of the time, the issue is attendance, and not just missing a day or two, Larsen says. The team steps in when, for instance, a student has missed 30 days during the semester.
Some parents don’t grasp the importance of their children being at school, the superintendent says. They keep students home to tend younger children in the family. The school district has even run into cases where children were permitted to stay home to play video games.
When a student has too many absences, the Americorp volunteer calls the student and parent in to find out why the child is missing school, and tries to overcome the problem, Larsen says. Sometimes, a student doesn’t like a particular teacher, or is being harassed by another child in a particular class. Often the volunteer can work with counselors to get the student’s schedule changed.
If that doesn’t solve the problem, “Kyle will come in with that attendance person and, if possible, the principal, and go meet at (the student’s) house and try to find out the true reason why these problems are happening,” Larsen said.
There have been instances where Parry and his team have gone to exceptional lengths to overcome attendance problems. One girl simply didn’t like school—but she liked horses. Restorative Justice staff members told her if she would attend school regularly, they would get a horse for her.
The student met attendance goals, and on Christmas Eve, Parry took her to the riding arena owned by Ephraim resident Craig Oberg. She got a horse and got to ride it.
In the North Sanpete School District, a clinical social worker has been hired this year covering the secondary schools. The district plans to hire a second social worker next year covering elementary and middle schools.
One of the roles of the social workers will be Restorative Justice, says Sam Ray, North Sanpete superintendent. They will work with principals and counselors to address problems. He says everyone involved will sit down as a committee and decide what’s best.