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Draper Journal

House Bill 132 aims to clarify truancy, school resource officer issues

Mar 07, 2018 10:56AM ● By Julie Slama

Youth hanging out at a park near a local high school during the school day. Students may be given interventions instead of being referred directly to the juvenile justice system for ditching school. (City Journals)

When House Bill 239 was passed last March, many school administrators applauded the intent to reduce the number of student referrals to juvenile court and instead offer other alternative interventions. 

But in the midst of it, the bill muddied some procedures, so House Bill 132, now in the Utah Legislature, is in motion to clarify HB239, said Nancy Tingy, Canyons Board of Education vice president.

“HB132 will fine-tune HB239,” she said. “There has been some issues for schools since it passed with understanding the roles and impact on the school resource officers, juvenile justice systems and the schools. It’s a huge issue and a switch in dynamics.”

House Bill 239, which was proposed by Rep. Lowry Snow of Washington County, was passed during the 2017 general session and signed by Gov. Gary Herbert on March 24. 

The bill began in June 2016, when state leadership under Herbert appointed a group to examine Utah’s juvenile justice system and produce recommendations for improvement. The review suggested that youth who are referred to court have worse outcomes than youth who receive services in the community, and that court referrals can lead to deeper involvement in the juvenile justice system. Data also showed a large proportion of cases coming into Utah’s juvenile justice system were low-level offenses that were referred by schools.

In October 2017, the Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee wrote a clarifying memo:

“House Bill 239 (HB239) does not eliminate School Resource Officers (SROs) nor is it intended to minimize the important role SROs play in schools. Rather, the changes are focused on reducing the amount of referrals to juvenile court (and arrests) that are being made, for offenses that could be addressed with alternative referrals and interventions.”

Canyons District Director of Responsive Services BJ Weller said that was a good move by the legislature.

“HB239 tries not to criminalize kids for kid behavior, such as smoking for the first time,” he said. “They shouldn’t have to go through the criminal justice system if they do something on curiosity or if they do something impulsive that isn’t a criminal offense.”

The confusion with some law enforcement and school districts with HB239 may be in terms of school resource officers’ jurisdiction involving crimes and if they take place on or off school property, he said.

In the same October memo, it states that HB 239 limits the ability for anyone — including school resource officers — to make a referral to court or arrest for class C misdemeanors, status offenses and infractions occurring on school property. School resource officers can, however, intervene and interact with youth if these offenses occur.

The memo continues to say that any offense that is not a class C misdemeanor, infraction or status offense remains referable to court, including assault of any level, all drug possession and drug paraphernalia charges, and disruption of school activities and criminal trespass on school property. HB 239 provisions apply to alleged offenses on school property, by minors enrolled in school year-round, both during school hours and outside of school hours.

Status offenses as “a violation of the law that would not be a violation, but for the age of the offender” include, but are not limited to, truancy, ungovernable youth and runaway youth, the memo stated. Alcohol and tobacco offenses are not status offenses because they are classified as misdemeanor offenses in Utah statute, but the purchase, possession or consumption of alcohol is a class B misdemeanor and may be referred to court. Additionally, using false identification to purchase tobacco products is a class A misdemeanor and may be referred to court. 

However, minors not using a false identification to purchase tobacco products or a first-time tobacco distribution offense are class C misdemeanors and may not be referred to court.

For those behaviors, there are alternative services available to assist students, said Weller, whose background is in social work. He said that with help, they can assist students who may have anxiety, depression or are missing school for other reasons.

Another change with HB239 is who takes responsibility when students are truant and who has the authority to step in to resolve the issue, Weller said.

“There’s still the law that students attend school, but in the past, if a family was not responsive to working out unexcused absences with us, we could refer them to a pre-court meeting in the juvenile system,” Weller said.

Students in Canyons have a 180 school day calendar year. They can have up to 18 parent-excused absences or vacation leave.

Compulsory education is still the law and schools can still refer violations against parents for students under the age of 12. 

“Compulsory education targets parents, whereas the changes in HB 239 impact how schools respond to youth age 12 and up,” he said, adding that now, with HB239, students age 12 and older can’t be referred.

“We can offer them options through community outreach and resource centers, but it’s not the same. If they want to go hang out with friends, there’s no consequence,” Weller said. “Truancy has always been an issue and it’s usually the kids who are not here are the ones that need to be here the most.”

Murray School District Director of Personnel and Student Services Darren Dean said that while BH239 made it so school districts can’t refer truancy to court for students ages 12 to17, Murray School District still issues truancy citations with small fines attached — which some have not always been paid.

“We also offer an attendance class for students with excessive absences that we invite both the student and parent to attend together,” he said, adding that there is no means to enforce attending the class. However, about 10 percent still attend. “The class focuses on why attendance is important. However, more importantly, we try to troubleshoot what is preventing the student from coming to school and connect them with people at the school who can help.”

Dean said it’s hard to pin down a reason students may not attend school. It could range from babysitting siblings, health issues, bullying, failing grades, lack of support for education, drugs or alcohol or others.

“I’ve found that solutions can be found if people are willing to work together with the school,” he said. “Our mission is to educate students and we want them at school to learn.”

In the meantime, Dean said teachers and administrators are working with students in a variety of ways to improve attendance, including offering rewards or incentives, such as getting an unsatisfactory citizenship mark taken off report cards.

Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley said figuring out what incentive would entice this population is hard to ascertain.

“In Granite, we’re talking 66 students of the 68,000 students in our district,” he said about those who have more than 10 unexcused absences during the school year. “It’s the habitual truant students we’re talking about and what we need to do is get to the heart of the problem, not just that the student is not in school.”

Horsley said that the No. 1 reason usually focuses on parental involvement and quality of support students receive.

“Sending them to detention didn’t solve the problem,” he said. 

Horsley said that HB239 changes policy, so now juvenile offenders get the help they need.

“It’s not just sending our juvenile offenders to jail, but it’s finding other interventions to get them the help they need,” he said. “This may be saving some of our low-level offenders from being placed and hardened by high-level criminals. Those kids don’t belong in the juvenile justice system. We can’t just throw a kid in the system if he made a non-violent, low-level mistake. It’s not good for the kid, the community or our society.” 

While Horsley said not all interventions are in place, there are meetings within the district — as well as with other school districts — to determine the best steps to help students. 

He said that the interventions may best be tailored to each district and the needs of students. For example, Granite, which is the largest school district in Salt Lake Valley and third largest district in the state, serves students across a diverse socio-economic background and has students speaking 96 different languages. What works for them may not work as well for a smaller district with a different background of students, he said.

In a December 2017 memo, the Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee said that both courts and schools are conducting trainings and outreach to meet implementation goals, including the Utah State Board of Education leading informational meetings statewide with educators and administrators.

Students who have committed more serious crimes won’t be able to return to the same school, Horsley said.

“It would be in violation of our safe schools. They can’t return; they can’t retaliate,” he said.

While Horsley said that HB239 will save the juvenile justice court money, it is yet to be determined where those funds will be reallocated or if education will need additional funding for alternative resources. 

While HB132 seeks clarification on HB239, no funding is attached to it, either.

“What we want is what’s best for our kids,” Horsley said. “We want to provide kids an education, keep them safe and get the appropriate help they need.”