Bouncing Back: Teens Transitioning to Freedom

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) -- You might be surprised to learn that your child could be in the classroom with a student found guilty of a serious crime.

10 On Your Side started looking into this after a Suffolk student brought a gun to school four months ago. It turns out that student had already been convicted of a felony. 

So, why was the student still in a public school in the first place? 

Because of child privacy laws it's unclear why in this case, but the answer to the bigger question isn't as simple; it's case-by-case. 

Laurie Cooper, with the Virginia Department of Education, told 10 On Your Side, "When the student is released from the detention center, we send an academic transfer summary back to the school where he or she most recently attended and those grades and any of those assignments or anything the student accomplished while in detention is incorporated into the student's academic record."

But who sees student records? 10 On Your Side has learned each school division in Hampton Roads has its own policy when it comes to students facing charges and who is privy to that information. 

Juvenile records are sealed and confidentiality is key, says Melissa Sickmund, Director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice. 

"It could be your kid, that did something and it didn't even seem that serious but they got caught up in the system. Wouldn't you want a system to protect your kid? I would."

According to the Virginia Department of Education:

"Students in local and regional detention centers receive educational services comparable to those offered in public schools through State Operated Programs. The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) enters into Cooperative Agreements with school divisions who agree to serve as the fiscal and HR agent for the program; VDOE oversees the academic programs. VDOE does not receive notification of students' charges and do not report any court information to school division personnel. That is the responsibility of the Court Service Unit (CSU). The Code of Virginia only requires the CSU notify the school division for certain felony charges,  CSU is not required to notify the school division about every charge."

According to the Suffolk Public Schools:

Courts and/or police do not typically and are not required to inform SPS of charges or convictions against a student if the crime was outside of school.  Of course, we are aware of such if the charge and adjudication was part of a school disciplinary situation.  Because notification to SPS is not required, we do not have any statistics to share as requested "regarding juvenile charges (convictions) reported to the Suffolk superintendent from the last five fiscal years. When we are aware of criminal charges -- community-based or school-based -- a student is typically placed in one of our alternative programs.  If the charges are dismissed, a student typically returns to their regular school. 

According to statistics from the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice, in the year 2017 there were 1,041 charges for juvenile offenses in Suffolk.

The top three: larceny, vandalism and assault.

Out of the seven districts in Hampton Roads, Norfolk had the most with 3,106 juvenile offenses. The data shows most crimes are happening when students are 15-16 years old.

A spokesman for the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice sent us this statement: 

"DJJ is required by Code to notify school superintendents of certain types of offenses, but then it is up to the local school division to decide if the student should continue attending his/her regular school or if an alternative is necessary while the court case is pending. 

If the alleged offense took place on school grounds or during a school activity, the school can handle the situation with its own discipline system, which could include suspension, expulsion, or placement in an alternative school.

The decision for school attendance is up to the school division and not DJJ.  If, while the case is pending, the court determines that the youth is a flight risk or a threat to the community, the judge can place him/her in detention, in which case the youth would receive educational services in the local detention center."

"If you say the word 'juvenile crime' people think in their heads the most serious stuff, they think murderers and school shootings ...but that's really very rare behavior. Most of what kids do is kid stuff ... it's annoying, it's not scary or life threatening," said Sickmund. 

But undoubtedly there's a change in classrooms across the country because of crime in schools. The dean of Darden College of Education at Old Dominion University, Jane Bray, says the biggest difference in classroom's today is the students coming in. 

"Anywhere from 1/2 to almost 2/3 of students are coming in with the classrooms now with some sort of behavioral issues or mental issues," Bray said. "The classroom has changed in a philosophical focus as well so that it's more now of positive reinforcement for behaviors rather than a punishment." 

She says dealing with a felon in a public school classroom is more of an anomaly. 

"It isn't easy. What you are talking about here is one of the most difficult things that teachers will deal with in the classroom," said Bray. "We also train our teachers that they are not the only ones responsible in the classroom for what they are doing and how they are working with the students. I really hate to use that adage 'It takes a village' but it's also the responsibility of the counselors within the schools, the responsibility of the leaders, the principals and the assistant principals and the curriculum specialists along with the teachers. It's really a collaborative effort of how to work with students who may be having some issues, any sort of trauma issues, behavioral issues."

"In Virginia, there's been a lot of discussion about how to reform the system, how to be smart on crime, because it's very expensive, if you lock every one up because you are mad at them, it's very expensive," said Sickmund. 

Once a teenager goes through the court process, options include: probation, community programs or Bon Air Juvenile Corrections center. In 2012 there were 5 state-run juvenile detention centers in Virginia. Now there's one, which is Bon Air, according to Greg Davy with the Department of Juvenile Justice. 

Some could say a push is needed to get those students into community programs, alternative schools or back to public schools. 

"If you put up road blocks that prevents kids from getting into high school, or road blocks that will prevent them from going to college or a job - you have basically created a future criminal," said Sickmund. 

As for the 15-year-old who brought the gun to school in Suffolk - the judge deemed the student a "serious offender." He was sentenced to the Department of Juvenile Justice until he turns 21. According to the Suffolk police report, there were no specific threats related to the weapon on the King's Fork school campus.

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