The two-story red brick Nassau County Courthouse in Fernandina Beach, Florida, features cast-iron Corinthian columns, oak wood pews and tables, and a massive bell tower and steeple. Built in 1891, this palace for justice is an ideal setting for a movie murder case.
“I love working there,” say Marian O’Neal, one of many education support professionals (ESPs) across the country who work at courthouses with students who have entered the juvenile justice system. “It’s rich in history and beautiful to look at, but when young offenders walk into one of the holding cells and the door slams shut behind them, they know they aren’t in some TV drama. It’s the real world!”
O’Neal is the supervisor’s secretary of attendance for the Nassau County School Board. She works in the Adult Education/Dropout Prevention Department. Her official duty is to monitor the attendance, grades, and disciplinary infractions of students at 15 schools. As the district’s representative in court, O’Neal spends two days a week at the courthouse meeting with judges, probation officers, public defenders, and attorneys defending students accused of breaking the law.
“That’s my job description,” O’Neal says. “My unofficial duty is to keep students from dropping out so that they get educated, graduate, and move on to live productive lives.”
Even before their lives begin, some teenagers who get caught shoplifting, fighting, skipping school, smoking marijuana, or committing other crimes can find themselves at a dead end. They go to jail, drop out of a school, and commit increasingly violent crimes. That is one tragic scenario for teens in trouble with the law.
Another is if they repent, agree to follow the straight and narrow, and are lucky enough to meet a caring ESP like O’Neal or Linda Overlie, a member of the Partnership for Youth Justice (PYJ) review board which hears cases in private at the Seattle, Washington, juvenile detention center courtroom.
Processing certain youth through the public juvenile justice system may do more harm than good. Public courts may inadvertently stigmatize some youth for having committed relatively petty acts. PYJ trains volunteers like Overlie in collaboration with the King County juvenile court system to review juvenile cases outside the formal, public system.
Known as a “diversion program,” PYJ conducts private and confidential juvenile court proceedings that involve a community diversion board, court advisor, student and family members. Information is shared with the prosecutors’ office, juvenile court, and police department. The cases involve first-time juvenile offenders charged with malicious mischief, criminal trespassing, theft, assault, and harassment, but not weapons or drug charges.
“Some students are prone to rash judgments that gets them in trouble with the law,” said Overlie, who works fulltime with special needs students at Nathan Hale High School. “I see students at school, and through PYJ, as unique and diverse learners. When you look behind the problem you will find something good that you can work with and build on.”
Through PYJ, juvenile offenders or their families are asked to pay approximately $260 to get a private hearing. There is a three-month wait for a case to be reviewed. Typically, a review board will hear three cases a night. Instead of jail time, a student participating in a diversion program might be required to do community service or attend educational sessions about their offense.
“Some of these students are on legal meds,” Overlie says. “They’re impulsive and sometimes can’t help themselves. They need special protection and guidance.”
In Montana, Riley Mayo also supports a sensible, therapeutic approach to juvenile crime. A truancy liaison officer in Billings, Mayo grew up in a small Idaho town “that could be pretty rough with a lot of meth to go around.”
Mayo keeps tabs on student attendance and disciplinary records while steering students toward counseling, education courses, and other rehabilitative services as an effort to keep them from dropping out of school.
“My mission is to get students back in the classroom,” he says. “Use whatever resources available to get truant students back in school while providing students with behavior issues the time they need to think about their next step.”
Mayo has worked in low-and high-income districts. He has seen students struggle due to poverty, divorced parents, living with relatives, and being raised in a group home.
“So many are struggling, we must help them,” he says. “I enjoy seeing kids succeed, especially those who people have given up on.”
Mayo was a teacher for several years prior to becoming a truancy officer. He has worked with supportive parents who attend PTA meetings and get their children to do their homework, and those who don’t.
“A home environment where parents provide love, guidance, and discipline can help students appreciate the risks and consequences of bad behavior,” Mayo says. “If students are not getting support at home, it can be difficult for them to learn in class and easy for them to land in trouble with the law.”