Written for the Los Alamos Monitor
The 2012-2013 school year found Los Alamos Middle School implmementing the beginning stages of a program called Restorative Justice.
The Juvenile Justice Advisory Board (JJAB), with help from Los Alamos County funded the work with a training in 2005, led by the Los Alamos Community Health Council.
The cases were criminal in nature and generally referred by the Juvenile Probabtion Officer.
According to JJAB Coordinator, Ellen Ben-Naim, “LAMS is implementing a Restorative Justice program to address conflicts before they escalate into situations involving criminal offenses, she said. “He felt like the program would be more successful if several members of the LAMS staff were trained in Restorative Justice.”
The program is designed to handle conflict by allowing everyone in the room to be heard, while allowing the offender to admit responsibility, accept group sanctions and end by regaining a place in the offended community.
This month, a training was designed not just for those interested in the handling issues locally, but to those interested in the CYFD offerring, from across the state.
Approximately 45 attendees representing; Silver City, Lordsburg, Raton, Luna, Albuquerque, Rio Rancho, Rio Arriba and Taos attended the day long event.
Facilitator Rose Gordon has thirteen years of experience facilitating trainings nationally and internationally with experience in a variety of populations, including working with Monks and programs involving the holocaust.
Gordon, has worked facilitating restorative justice circles for the Taos County Juvenile Justice Board for more than eight years.
Naomi Unger and Sherri Bublitz were two of a number of LAMS staff to attend the JJAB training.
“As a teacher, I think the format for restorative justice has many applications - active listening, documenting strengths, developing a plan, said Unger. “Since conflict exists among students, I found the techniques I learned beneficial.”
Bublitz, a Community Assets Award winner said, “There are several ways I can see the principles of Restorative Justice being implemented as a teacher. The ice breaker games will be helpful not only for their intended purpose, but as nice 'break,' type activities when stress levels are higher than normal in class. Aditionally, the foundational principles will work well even without a formal circle: when two students have a disagreement, or a strong difference of opinion.”
Los Alamos Middle School Prinicpal, Rex Kilburn believes his newly trained staff will be able to assist other sites throughout the district.
“I was very glad to see some of my staff interested in this training,” said Rex Kilburn, LAMS Principal. “I believe in the Restorative Justice process and know that it has a place in the middle school for resolving issues. Based on its use this year, I say that the process is very effective and has provided long-lasting results.”
You can learn more about JJAB programs by visiting their website at www.losalamosjjab.com.
“There are a number of reasons that students have unexcused absences,” said Jane Johnson, who assists Administration with truancy intervention at Los Alamos High School. “Some students, in the beginning, think they can get by with ditching and no one will notice or care, or they just don’t feel like going to class that day. Some students will ditch a class when they have a test coming up that they don’t feel prepared to take. They sometimes skip one class and use that time to prepare for the next class. It really becomes a serious issue when they have missed enough class time that their grades begin to suffer.”
No matter what the reason a student has for ditching class, Johnson makes sure that the problem gets addressed early. Her official job title is Youth Resiliency/Truancy Intervention Liaison, and this is Jane’s fourth semester at LAHS. The Juvenile Justice Advisory Board (JJAB) created this position 3 years ago in order to protect students from falling through the cracks. By addressing the problem of unexcused absences early in the cycle, many students are prevented from becoming habitually truant. New Mexico has a mandatory attendance law, and students can actually lose credit for a class if they have not attended it at least 90% of the time. “But we do not want to see them missing any classes at all, and have developed quite an effective early intervention process for when it happens,“ says Johnson.
“I feel that the work is important, and that it’s helpful for Administration to have someone in this position,” stated Johnson, who earned her BA from the University of Arkansas in Social Work and Criminal Justice. She coordinates with Administration to confront truancy problems in a timely manner and keep the process flowing.
Los Alamos High School has a system of specific intervention steps. The details change slightly from year to year as the system improves, but the steps have always progressed from letters home and meetings with Administration initially, to referrals to Children, Youth, and Family Department (CYFD) for the most serious cases. Los Alamos is a community where a strong emphasis is placed on education, so our school attendance is among the best in New Mexico and CYFD referrals are very minimal.
From her office in LAHS Room #A-106, Johnson monitors attendance, meets with students who have unexcused absences, and completes all the paperwork necessary to ensure that students face the consequences of unexcused absences, and get back on track. Last year there were approximately 200 students who experienced the first step of intervention in the truancy system. Half of those students did not progress to the second step, so it is making a difference. “We’ve had a significant reduction in unexcused absences,” said the new Assistant Principal, Carter Payne.
This year students who are Tardy (arriving to class within 10 minutes after the bell) or Late (arriving 10 minutes after class has started) will also become involved in the system and receive consequences. “Students are often late because they get distracted in the hall on their way to their next class. Sometimes they’ll run into their friends and forget the time,” explained Johnson. “But if they are not in attendance when class starts they miss valuable information and instruction, and if class is interrupted by latecomers it’s hard for teachers to make progress and hard for the rest of the class to concentrate.”
“The main thing that parents and students need to realize is how important attendance is to overall success. You can’t get good grades without being in class. When students’ grades start slipping they think, ‘what’s the point of going -- I probably can’t pass this class anyway.’ It then becomes a downward spiral,” said Johnson. “The school takes attendance very seriously and intervention steps are in place to help prevent failure.”
When skipping is a sign of a deeper problem
“The school administrators and staff do everything they can to help students succeed,“ Johnson said. “Last year the assistant principal sometimes met with at-risk students every week, even checking in with a few on a daily basis -- whatever it took to keep them goal-oriented.”
One of many programs supported by JJAB to help at-risk youth at LAHS is Saturday School. In its second year of existence, this program provides students a chance to complete and get credit for work. Some attendees are assigned Saturday School as a consequence for unexcused absences, but others are there to take advantage of that uninterrupted block of time to focus on a project or improve their grades. It is very popular program with students and has been heavily attended.
It can be frustrating when a student is sent to one program for truancy, and sent to another program for drug abuse, while the child’s family may be seeking support for behavioral problems; and yet all the issues remain separate when a synchronized effort would be more effective. The JJAB is working to overcome this obstacle by establishing a Youth Resource Advocate position. “We’re trying to put together a coordinated response, and work out a plan with the family,” said Alan Kirk, the Chair of the JJAB. “What we’re trying to do is get help before help is required.
One thing I really liked about this presentation:
One thing I wish would be added to this presentation:
Skills I learned in class that I will likely use with my family
Topics I would like to see presented in the future:
LAHS student volunteer Katie Haynes
Top 10 Reasons to serve on Teen Court:
Preparing for a Teen Court session.
"The honorable" Toni Batha, her judicial black robe billowing about her, presided over a recent Los Alamos Teen Court hearing.
This is the second year that the Los Alamos High School junior has volunteered her time at the local court.
"It's really a great learning experience,"Batha said of helping her peers.
LAHS Senior Vanessa Duran also is a second-year volunteer.
"After this year, I'm going into law ... I want to be an attorney and this program has really helped me grow a lot," said Duran who assumed the role of prosecuting attorney during the recent proceeding. "I'm definitely a better speaker and I've learned to flow my arguments better."
Duran commended Teen Court Coordinator Jennifer Bartram with creating an atmosphere "that feels like a real court."
Bartram took over leadership of the court in 2011 after nearly a decade of teaching local youth programs.
"My predecessors Barb Marcille and Molly Nidday did a really good job of modeling our Teen Court after area courtrooms," Bartram said.
Teen Court is a nationally recognized early intervention and restorative justice program for juveniles, ages 12-18.
It is a diversionary court that keeps first time teen offenders with traffic infractions and misdemeanor offenses out of the traditional court system.
The teen accepts responsibility for their offense, appears before a teen judge in special training for at least a year, and their peers, and is sentenced.
The teen faces consequences that help them to learn from their mistakes and make amends for their actions.
The sanctions are determined by a Teen Court jury, and usually include community service and jury duty at future Teen Court hearings.
Other possible sanctions can include being required to write an essay, letters of apology, attend educational programs, gender-specific programs and substance abuse prevention workshops.
Misdemeanor cases heard in Teen Court are diverted from the juvenile probation officer in Santa Fe, for minor law infractions, most commonly shoplifting, possession of drugs and or paraphernalia and battery.
Traffic offenses draw mandatory participation in defensive driving school. Teens who commit misdemeanor crimes are automatically referred to a diversion program at the Los Alamos Family Council where they also receive behavioral assessment, Bartram said.
"To be eligible for Teen Court, participants have to either live within Los Alamos County or attend a school within Los Alamos County," Municipal Court Administrator Lisa Zuhn said. "Sanctions are based within a range of perimeters. As an example, a level one offens (following too close) would require the jury to order 10-30 hours of community service and one to two jury duties, along with a defensive driving class. The student offender also may be required to write a letter of apology to any victims."
There are more than 14 teen courts in New Mexico. The Los Alamos Teen Court is a member of the New Mexico Teen Court Association.
"We meet quarterly, which is important because it gives us the opportunity to network, share information and ask questions to find out how other courts are handling specific issues," Bartram said."These meetings also help us to better train our student attorneys" A recent example was learning how they can handle objections and it's just amazing to listen to them in the courtroom. We also bring in attorneys for training opportunities for the students."
Los Alamos County began offering teen court four years ago.
Several national studies, including one released in October, show that teenagers sentenced through teen courts have lower recidivism rates than counterparts whose cases are heard in traditional juvenile courts.
According to a study by The Urban Institute, affiliated with the U.S. Justice Department, teens whose cases are heard in teen courts have a 6 percent recidivism rate, compared to an 18 percent rate for those cases heard through a traditional juvenile court.
The theory is simple: If peer pressure gets kids into trouble, it should be able to keep kids out of trouble, or effectively set them straight when they stray, according to the study, according to the experts.
Teen offenders benefit because they are given a unique opportunity to be exposed to positive peer influence.
In Teen Court, juveniles learn how other teens feel about the offense that was committed, and they face consequences that are directly related to the infraction.
Parental consent and participation are required for the teen to attend Teen Court.
When the defendant, and, or their parent choose not to go through Teen Court, the case returns to the originating source whether Municipal Court, Magistrate Court or the Juvenile Probation Officer.
The outcome is overwhelmingly positive for those who do go through the program, said those involved. "We find that parents are very positive about the fact that their child is taking responsibility and that their peers are setting the sanctions,"Bartram said.
The community benefits from this early intervention because it can improve teen attitudes toward authority, increase communication between parents and teens, and prevent teens from re-offending or from graduating to more serious crimes, she said, adding that when a student offender successfully completes all sanctions within the required time frame, (90 days), the original charges are dismissed.
Los Alamos Middle School and Los Alamos High School students are eligible to volunteer. They receive training in Teen Court procedure, and are given guidelines for sentencing.
"It's really a great program," Batha said.
Teen Court is operated under the umbrella of the Los Alamos Municipal Court, which provides a portion of its court fees to the program and another portion comes from Los Alamos County, Zuhn said. Teen Court is held in the Municipal Courtroom in the Justice Center at 2500 Trinity Dr.