Changing Juvenile Justice Trajectories: Redirecting the School-to-Prison Pipeline

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Jacqui GreeneDisrupting a child’s trajectory into the juvenile justice system holds great promise for increasing life opportunities for that youth and for creating safer communities. Growing concern over zero tolerance policies in schools across the country and their contribution to the school-to-prison pipeline has shed light on a common pathway into the juvenile justice system — school misbehavior.

This issue is particularly pronounced for youth with mental health and substance abuse needs who may struggle within the demands of the school setting. If offered an alternative response to juvenile justice system referral, it is possible to change trajectories for these youth.

Our work at the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice (NCMHJJ) is focused on supporting school-based diversion from juvenile justice system referral specifically for young people who have mental health and substance abuse needs. With more than two-thirds of young people who become juvenile justice-involved presenting with a mental health need and with data showing the strong connection between school suspension, disability and eventual juvenile justice system involvement, school-based diversion is a natural fit for disruption of the path into the juvenile justice system.

The Responder model for school-based diversion of youth with behavioral health needs is a structure that can help change their trajectories. Developed as part of the Mental Health/Juvenile Justice Action Network coordinated by NCMHJJ through the Models for Change initiative, the Responder model is rooted in four core principles: collaboration among schools, law enforcement and service providers; school policy change; education and training for personnel who touch the diversion effort; and access to behavioral health services.

[Related: Listen to the White Southerner: Zero Tolerance in Schools Is Racist]

The model was first developed in Connecticut and Ohio. Connecticut was able to capitalize on the robust emergency mobile crisis services available in that state. School personnel were trained to identify youth who might be experiencing mental health issues. Instead of calling law enforcement for intervention, school personnel now call a mobile crisis team that responds to the school, providing a clinical assessment and connecting youth to services.

Ohio took a slightly different approach. A new Responder role was established within their community’s Family Resource Center. The Responder provides school staff an alternative to calling law enforcement. The Responder works with the young person and his or her family to identify behavioral health needs and to connect him or her to needed community-based services.

It is important to note that the success of this model is not driven by the school itself becoming a mental health service provider. Instead, the Responder model provides a formal alternative response for schools that takes the form of community-based services in place of referral to the juvenile justice system.

Schools are asked to reframe their staff’s perspective so that this alternative response is utilized. This gives schools great power to create a different path for young people simply by creating buy-in among their staff, providing access to the right training and calling the Responder in lieu of a call to the police.

The NCMHJJ is now working with four new states to develop and implement similar Responder models. While the variation and individual complexities across states demands an approach tailored to each community’s structure, there are some common components that every Responder initiative must include.

First, schools must have an alternative to calling law enforcement. That alternative should have the capacity to screen and assess youth for behavioral health needs and to connect young people to effective community-based services. Schools may be able to tap into local crisis mental health services, they may already have a school-based health center that provides mental health services and that can take on this function, or they may create a formal relationship with a community-based agency to provide a Responder specifically for school referrals.

Second, administrators and staff in the schools must have guidance and training on when to access the mental health responder. This can take the form of structured decision-making tools, such as grids that guide appropriate responses for specific school behaviors, and screening instruments or checklists that offer staff support in determining if there may be a need for a mental health assessment.

Perhaps more challenging is the need to change attitudes among school personnel who are not convinced that juvenile justice referrals should be avoided. Specific training in child development, signs and symptoms of mental illness in young people, prevalence and impacts of traumatic experiences among youth, and typical outcomes that result from experiences in the juvenile justice system may help in this effort.

Finally, families and youth must be willing to go down this alternative path. Baggage that can come both with school discipline responses and with the stigma of mental health needs can be a significant barrier to implementing effective Responder programs. To help overcome these issues, family representatives can be included in the planning of diversion initiatives from the outset. Grassroots community-based agencies can also be excellent planning partners and, with their support, can help foster acceptance of the program among community members.

It is also critical for schools to consider how parental consent will be obtained for any mental health screening, assessment and services that may result from the Responder initiative. Thoughtful planning for early parental engagement and consent can go a long way toward increasing parental support.

As this work has shown, the path of young people into the juvenile justice system can be altered if schools are provided an option for behavioral health intervention without referral to law enforcement.  Schools implementing the school-based diversion model average a 45 percent reduction in court referrals during their first year. Once in place, youth with behavioral health needs will be given a chance to develop without juvenile justice system involvement.

Jacqui Greene is a senior project associate for Policy Research Associates, working at the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice. She helps states with strategies for youth suffering from trauma and strategies to divert youth with behavioral health needs from juvenile justice system involvement.

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