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RSS gets back to work on partnership to reduce students in court for minor infractions

SALISBURY — Rowan-Salisbury Schools is resuming work on a partnership that aims to reduce instances of students ending up in courts for minor infractions.

The schools, local law enforcement and the judiciary are working to finalize a school justice partnership in line with the knock-on effects of North Carolina raising the age of offenders considered as adults by the courts from 16 to 18.

The state created School Justice Partnership North Carolina with the goal of getting partnerships in place for every county in the state. There are more than 40 counties which have already implemented partnerships and Rowan County is part of a list of nine counties working on implementation currently. The local partnership was started in 2019.

The N.C. Judicial Branch says school justice partnerships “work to reduce the numbers of suspenses and referrals to the justice system by timely and constructively addressing student misconduct when and where it happens, helping students succeed in school and preventing negative outcomes for both youth and their communities.” The partnerships are all convened by district court judges.

RSS Chief Student Services Officer April Kuhn told the RSS board on Monday state leaders convened ahead of raising the age for juvenile defendants and local leaders reviewed the resulting goals passed down by the state before trying to line them up with existing local partnerships.

Kuhn told the board RSS is now looking to pick up where it left off before the COVID-19 pandemic. She reviewed key points from a draft memorandum of understanding:

• Strengthening existing partnerships with law enforcement and the community

• Ensure school-initiated juvenile involvement with law enforcement, primarily for major infractions. Discipline would primarily involve school staff.

• Reduce the number of minor infractions involving law enforcement.

The partnership would also establish a monitoring team, which would meet at least once per year. Kuhn asked the board to continue reviewing a memorandum of understanding and support its signing once the document is ready. The board will receive an updated version of the document by its next board meeting on Oct. 25.

Kuhn said the district already has a relationship with local law enforcement that keeps police from being pulled into situations that should be disciplinary.

Board member Dean Hunter expressed concern a major infraction could be reduced to a minor incident.

Kuhn gave the example of a student possessing a weapon being a disciplinary issue and a reportable crime.

“The decision and the collaboration between that administrator and that school resource officer is key in making sure that the issue is dealt with appropriately,” Kuhn said, adding officer have expertise about how to handle crimes.

She gave another example of a fight between two students. In one case, there could be in an injury that leads to a criminal charge, but if two students are pulled apart in a minor scuffle that may be handled as a disciplinary issue only.

Board member Travis Allen, an investigator for the Rowan Sheriff’s Office, said he wants to ensure victims’ rights are protected. Allen said he was shown a video where a student attacked another student in a high school and the offending student was suspended but not charged. He said there’s a difference between when two students fight and when one student is assaulted when not being the aggressor.

RSS Superintendent Tony Watlington said the partnership is not an attempt to be soft on crime, but there are some things that should be handled by schools and others by law enforcement.

In other agenda items:

• Lynn Marsh was sworn in as the seventh member of the school board, filling the seat vacated by Susan Cox in August. Marsh was appointed by the board and will serve until the general election next year, when the remaining two years of the term will be up for election.

• During the regular COVID-19 update, also given by Kuhn, Hunter made a motion to make masks optional in schools, which was seconded by Allen, who has joined Hunter frequently in opposing requiring masks in schools. The rest of the board has been in favor of keeping masks in place since the district’s COVID-19 quarantines and infections increased to unprecedented levels at the beginning of the school year in August.

The vote failed 4-2. Hunter and Allen voted for the motion while Jean Kennedy, Brian Hightower, Vice Chair Alisha Byrd-Clark and Chair Kevin Jones voted against removing the mandate. Marsh abstained from voting on the issue, saying after the meeting she would need to review the data to make a decision on the issue.

• The board heard the recommendation to give schools flexibility on matching $10,000 in funding provided by the board for a second year. The matching fundraising requirement was waived during the pandemic and Chief Operations Officer Anthony Vann presented the request to do the same this year. The issue was placed on the consent agenda for the board’s next meeting.

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