Delinquency Early Warning Program Shows Promise

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – A program designed to curb truancy in Mahoning County school districts and provide resources for students and families is starting to show results, officials say.

“We know that truancy is the No. 1 predictor of delinquency,” Mahoning County Juvenile Court Judge Theresa Dellick said Monday during a press conference at the Juvenile Justice Center. “As a court, if we are going to protect public safety and reduce crime, we need to get right to the root of it – and the root is truancy.”

Two years ago, Mahoning County was one of just four sites across the United States to be selected for the School Justice Partnership pilot program, made possible by a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

“The grant is designed to bring the school and families together,” Dellick said. “By collaborating with our schools, we’re going to be able to directly attack delinquency. We’re already making great interventions, great diversions from the cases being sent to juvenile court.”

A large component of the program is to engage cooperation from the area’s schools and service providers to create a healthy academic environment, Dellick said.

School staffs, for example, have been trained in restorative justice. “Every morning, the teachers have restorative circles where they talk about what’s going on at home or with their families,” she said.

The program provides an early warning system for at-risk students and helps spur intervention early, eliminating the need to direct issues to the juvenile court “We have seen more family engagement, more diversion and better results staying in school,” she said.

Teri Deal, senior research associate at the National Center for Family and Juvenile Court Judges, says it’s still too early to ascertain comprehensive data, but preliminary results are encouraging.

“Kids are getting referred to court for truancy earlier,” Deal said, “which means it’s being identified earlier in school and services are going to begin earlier to help them.” In addition, she noted, there is a “large decline” in the number of students referred to the court because of disruptive instances in school.

As of now, the program encompasses Austintown, Struthers, Boardman and Campbell school districts.

“It’s changed the culture, especially in our intermediate, our junior high and our high school,” said Tim Saxton, superintendent of Boardman Local School District. In the past, it was common practice for the district to send a letter, then engage in some intervention steps before referring the matter to the courts.

“Here, we’re pulling them in before we refer them to the courts to find out why they’re not in school or why they’re having academic or behavior issues,” Saxton said. “Then, we find different support systems and plug those in so these students aren’t referred to the court.”

Saxton said the ultimate objective is to establish a stronger connection between the students and their school. “Once the kids become more connected with the school,” the superintendent said, “they’ll become more successful and they’re going to buy in to what you’re doing and then get a good education.”

Vince Colaluca, superintendent of Austintown Schools, said that the best part of the program is the spirit of cooperation among the school districts, behavioral health organizations and the courts. “It’s a great reflection of the whole community that we are working in a partnership to really address our students’ needs,“ he said. “It’s not to punish children. It’s really to find a way to put the supports in place for them to be successful.”

Integrating behavioral health services into school districts and the courts is an important component of this program, adds Joe Shorokey, CEO of Alta Care Group. “We can go into the schools, do screenings and help to uncover those kids who are really going unrecognized with mental health needs,” he said. “Over the past school year, we’ve screened 222 children who have been identified through the early warning system through this collaborative.”

Of that number, 60% have been identified as needing more behavioral health intervention, Shorokey said. “The value in early intervention is to get those kids who are flying under the radar, identify them, and get them connected to the services they need.”

Dellick said that punitive measures have not worked in dealing with truancy and delinquency, and this approach provides “a logical, viable alternative that is already showing promise.” And, by targeting this at-risk group, the program helps to better prepare students for a more productive future free of crime.

“You’re going to see that the students that we target are those students who usually slip through the cracks and pass on to the adult system,” Dellick said. We’re going to target that group and hopefully, in the long run you’re going to see a decrease in the adult criminal numbers.”

Pictured above: Timothy Saxton, superintendent, Boardman Local Schools; Vince Colaluca, superintendent, Austintown Local Schools; Judge Theresa Dellick; and Pete Pirone, superintendent, Struthers City Schools.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.