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Multi-agency plan aims to keep kids in school, out of court

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As a judge in juvenile court, Jay Corpening sees a lot of kids facing charges resulting from incidents at school. He also is well aware that once a young person is involved with the court system, he is likely to wind up there again.

During the New Hanover County Board of Education meeting Tuesday, Oct. 6, Corpening stood beside Superintendent Tim Markley to explain an agreement aimed at keeping students in school and out of court except for the most serious behavior.

The agreement, 18 months in the making, involved a broad group of people who deal with troubled young people — law enforcement, school officials, counselors, social services and mental health agencies and community groups.

The document lays out a range of punishments available to deal with varying degrees of misconduct, with the ultimate goal of steering youth in a positive direction and addressing mental health, social or family problems that may contribute to the bad behavior.

In 2012, Corpening, the chief district court judge for New Hanover and Pender counties, learned of a school district in Clayton, Georgia, that used similar methods. In six years, the district reduced suspensions, improved graduation rates and reduced incidents requiring the involvement of a school resource officer.

He thought Clayton’s approach could work here. Among those involved in developing the plan were Markley, Sheriff Ed McMahon, District Attorney Ben David, Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous and representatives of other agencies.

The agreement offers guidelines but does not limit the authority of administrators or the school board to take harsher action if the situation requires it, Markley said. But it also identifies out-of-school suspension and juvenile court as last resorts.

The agreement incorporates many things the school system already is doing but also clarifies and standardizes responses, Corpening and Markley said.

The board voted 6-0 to approve the agreement, but members Ed Higgins and Tammy Covil expressed concern that the document would indeed limit their authority. Covil also said it fails to acknowledge what is already being done to reduce suspensions and punishment involving a criminal charge.

“It just seems to me like this agreement is putting down what we already do,” Covil said.

That isn’t the intent, said Corpening, who agreed the schools and school resource officers are doing an excellent job working to keep students in class and out of court.

The focus is on students who need a firm hand and strong guidance, the judge said.

“What we’re looking at is the kids who make us mad, not the kids who scare us,” Corpening said.

There is still zero tolerance for weapons, drugs, sexual assaults and other serious incidents, Markley added.

Two residents who are active with the NAACP’s local chapter, Steve Lee and George Vlasits, stood at the beginning of the meeting to express support for the agreement. Lee said suspensions, dropouts and the prison population are too high.

“School suspension starts this process,” he said. The agreement “is a tool for you to turn these sad statistics around,” he said.

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