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Thursday, October 22, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Audit faults juvenile courts for not alerting schools to student crimes

A recent performance audit from the Washington State Auditor's Office shows juvenile courts in the state only alert schools about half the time when one of its students has committed a crime. In Clark County, the numbers are lower with schools getting notified about 29 percent of the time. (Courtesy)
A recent performance audit from the Washington State Auditor's Office shows juvenile courts in the state only alert schools about half the time when one of its students has committed a crime. In Clark County, the numbers are lower with schools getting notified about 29 percent of the time. (Courtesy)
By Katie Gillespie Columbian

Juvenile courts in Washington can prove only about half the time that they’re alerting schools when one of their students has committed a crime, according to a performance audit from the Washington State Auditor’s Office.

State law requires that juvenile courts alert schools when their students are convicted, adjudicated or enter into a diversion program after committing any of more than 330 offenses. According to the auditor’s office, that amounts to 10,000 notices that must be made in any given year.

Audited courts proved they made 51 percent of those notices. In another 29 percent of cases, courts said they’d made the notification but didn’t have a record of doing so.

Locally, the numbers are lower: Clark County Juvenile Court verified sending 29 percent of the notices in the cases the auditor’s office looked at. In 18 percent of those cases, notification may have been sent but couldn’t be verified.

But in the audit notes there are “gaps and breakdowns in the processes state agencies, courts and law enforcement use to send information to schools and districts” that agencies began working to correct even before the audit was released last month. The auditor’s office started a workgroup to consider potential legal changes to streamline the process, and advised the Legislature formalize that group.

“The processes were mandated at different times over a period of more than 20 years, with different contexts and different authorizing environments,” the audit reads. “An automated system would bring consistency across notification processes, limit the potential for human error, provide verification of receipt, allow for monitoring of completeness and accuracy, and provide information to appropriate staff on a need-to-know basis.”

It’s important to note that while state law requires the notification be made, it does not specify how that happens, or whether proof of notification be kept at all. That means in the eyes of the law, a juvenile parole officer calling a local principal is just as good as sending a paper form informing them of the student’s crime.

But not keeping a record can open districts to the risk of lawsuits if someone disputes whether notification was made in the first place, according to the audit.

“It would certainly be useful in the future if anyone questioned whether the notification was sent,” said Lori Garretson, senior performance auditor. “It’s also helpful for the courts themselves in managing their own process.”

When schools know that a student is returning to school after a stint in juvenile court, they put together what’s called a re-engagement plan for those students, said Trish Piliado, director of student welfare and attendance for Vancouver Public Schools. That means looking at students’ grades, credits and attendance to determine where they’re struggling and how schools can help, she said. Sometimes it also means connecting students with drug treatment resources, or organizations that can help their families.

“It’s important for us to know, and not just because we want to be leery of a kid,” she said. “We want them to be successful.”

‘Learning experience’

The local results, Clark County Juvenile Court Administrator Christine Simonsmeier said, were “a bummer.” She believed Clark County was ahead of the curve on notifications compared to others. Clark County, for example, developed its own form parole officers send to school principals to alert them when a student had been convicted of a crime. They’ve since shared that form with other courts who didn’t have a standardized system, she said.

“We felt pretty confident going in,” she said.

But the audit revealed there were still some slip-ups, Clark County Juvenile Court officials shared. For example, in cases where a student had committed more than one crime, the court alerted schools only of the more severe infraction. There were also cases where it was unclear what school the student would be attending, or students were convicted during the summer, and it wasn’t clear where to send the paperwork.

The court has already started additional training for staff. They created a spreadsheet for the offenses that require notification so staff can quickly check whether notice is needed. Legal secretaries now slip the notification form for every new offense into a juvenile’s file before passing it along to their probation officers. According to the audit, other juvenile courts and the state Administrative Office of the Courts have made similar changes, and two courts that didn’t keep documentation at all report they will.

“It was a huge learning experience,” said Jill McGinnis, probation services manager for Clark County Juvenile Court.

And area school districts note that the numbers don’t reflect the whole story about their relationship with Clark County Juvenile Court.

Evergreen Public Schools spokeswoman Gail Spolar said juvenile court probation staff often communicate in-person with school staff working closely with students, be it a counselor, a school resource officer or another adult.

“Evergreen Public Schools finds that in practice, the Juvenile Court does far better than the report would seem to suggest,” Spolar said by email. “As a long standing practice, the Juvenile Court probation staff and staff at the secondary schools have a collegial, collaborative relationship.”

Piliado echoed that, saying Vancouver Public Schools works closely with juvenile court to support students as they transition back into school.

“If we know they’re coming we can set up a good plan for them, rather than showing up and nobody’s ready for them,” Piliado said. “Our goal is always kids make mistakes and that doesn’t define who they are. We want to help them get a fresh start.”

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