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Officials prepare to occupy new Juvenile Justice Center

Changes in approach to students reducing case load

Photo by Kathy Jefcoats
Clayton County Juvenile Court Chief Judge Steven Teske and Selina Spencer from Grace Harbour, a counseling agency, look over the new Juvenile Justice Center.

Photo by Kathy Jefcoats Clayton County Juvenile Court Chief Judge Steven Teske and Selina Spencer from Grace Harbour, a counseling agency, look over the new Juvenile Justice Center.

JONESBORO — As officials prepare to occupy the new Clayton County Juvenile Justice Center, authorities said changes in the way complaints are handled is helping to reduce the number of cases filtering through the system.

Keeping kids out of the judicial system is a group effort — the sort of feat that almost takes a village to accomplish. That village has been led for years by Steven Teske, now chief judge of Clayton County Juvenile Court. Teske was one of a handful of judges in the country to contribute to a Coalition for Juvenile Justice report, "Positive Power: Exercising Judicial Leadership to Prevent Court Involvement and Incarceration for Non-Delinquent Youth."

Teske believes in keeping kids in school and out of the judicial system.

"Not only is arresting and detaining kids who are not a threat not effective but putting them in a system for what is defined as typical juvenile conduct or misbehavior has an abusive effect because it promotes kids down a path of delinquency they would not otherwise have gone down," he said. "We were actually working to contribute to delinquency."

A child usually ends up in Juvenile Court through a complaint issued against him or her at school. In Clayton County, the School Resource Officer program is operated by the sheriff's office. Lt. Jeff Smith said deputies work out of the middle and high schools.

A typical scenario starts with a fight, he said, the most common way for a student to get into trouble.

"We give a warning first," said Smith. "A kid is a kid and kids are gonna be kids. That's a normalcy. Kids have different personalities and they're gonna have fights."

If the trouble continues, a second warning is issued. With the third warning comes a meeting with parents and school counselors.

However, a child needn't get into serious trouble to come to the attention of officials. Luvenia Jackson is administrator of Clayton County System of Care, a collaborative procedure for supporting students and families.

"We don't have to wait for a child to get to a level of destruction before we can help him," said Jackson. "We can identify factors such as attendance and academic performance to identify kids at risk. A counselor is involved from the beginning and we get the SRO involved."

Shannon Howard is a coordinator with Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative through the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The goal of JDAI is to reduce unnecessary juvenile confinement.

"From a social worker perspective, we're looking at the family and seeing all the different types of agencies the family might be involved with," he said. "We ask questions about the household, to find out the cause of the child's behavior. We do a full assessment of the child and family."

The holistic approach allows officials to determine which agency is needed to best help the child and his or her family. Sometimes the child needs counseling. Grace Harbour in Peachtree City provides counseling for juveniles and their families. Counselor Selina Spencer is a key component in the approach.

"We help kids resolve disruptive behavior," said Spencer. "It requires an entire family involvement."

Teske's wife, Sheryl Teske, wrote the grant that got the county $275,000 to create the System of Care through the school administration.

Judge Teske said back in the 1990s, courts were taking a hardline approach to juvenile justice, seemingly locking up kids for every infraction. Cases climbed to a peak in 2003 with 1,262 complaints to Juvenile Court from schools. Last year, the court heard 197 complaints.

With the SROs in charge and taking a more common sense approach to dealing with kids, what might have been complaints are now warnings. Smith said deputies issued 489 warnings last year in 27 middle and high schools. Warnings are dealt with outside of court. A complaint is sent into the court and becomes a petition for delinquency.

"The SROs have discretion with the warnings," said Smith. "We are seeing more improvement in the behavior of kids and more patience on the part of teachers, adults and SROs."

Juvenile Court judges are also taught the difference between punishing a child because they are mad at them and punishing a child who scares them. Convicted cop killer Johnathan Bun scared Clayton juvenile authorities beginning at age 10. Bun, 18, was sentenced last week to life in prison without parole plus 70 years for killing a Clayton sheriff's deputy last summer.

"Johnathan Bun was a sociopath, he had a cold look at the world because he was raised without nurturing and love," said Judge Teske.

All the officials involved in the caring and nurturing of Clayton County students met in training sessions prior to school starting Aug. 13. Patience was a running theme through all the sessions.

"It's about being more patient with the kids and not letting them get under our skin," he said. "We want to provide a System of Care and not a System of Delinquency."

As Clayton students return to school and hopefully avoid an appearance in Juvenile Court, officials are preparing to move into a new Juvenile Justice Center built next door to the Clayton County Courthouse on Tara Boulevard in Jonesboro. The $15 million building is mostly finished and workers begin occupying the new offices Aug. 27. The four-story facility will house three working courtrooms and office space for support staff, attorneys and other personnel in place to help keep kids out of detention.