Vineland: Plugging the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Summary

Vineland, a predominately rural county in Southern New Jersey with approximately 2,500 students, teachers and principals in 9th – 12th grade schools relied heavily on local police to manage and maintain student behavior. Frequently, this resulted in arrests of students throughout the school year. Charges ranged from non-violent offenses such as “improper behavior” and “offensive language,” to more serious offenses such as “simple assault.” In 2012, the high schools ( 9th an 10th grade building and 11th and 12th grade building) represented the hottest spot for juvenile arrests in the entire county (10% of all juvenile arrests), as well as 20% of juvenile arrests in its largest city.

The Cumberland County Positive Youth Development Coalition worked with the police department and school district to uncover why these arrests were happening and to identify solutions. Through a wide array of programming and policy changes spanning multiple stakeholders, juvenile arrests in these schools have declined significantly (45.1%) from 2013 to 2015.

The Data

In January 2014, WRI staff compiled data around juvenile arrests for Bridgeton, Millville and Vineland. They analyzed and mapped this data to demonstrate exactly where the delinquent activity occurred. For Vineland, a hotspot map revealed the predominant area for arrests was at and around the high school.

  • Arrests occurred at the Brewster and Chestnut cross street intersection, at the school and the Wawa across the street.
  • Arrests here account for 10% of the all Juvenile Crime in the County and 20% of Juvenile Crime for the City of Vineland.
  • The peak times for arrests were before school and during the lunch break.

In light of these facts, the law enforcement and education stakeholders from Vineland delved more deeply into why this was occurring. The presentation from WRI identified the primary reason for arrest as disorderly conduct, (followed by theft, then drug use), and this fact, coupled with the research also provided by WRI illuminating the detrimental effects of even a single contact with law enforcement, encouraged both the school and police stakeholders to take steps to reduce the number of arrests at the school.

Culture Change

Specifically, these stakeholders realized that a change in the school and police department culture regarding juvenile discipline needed to occur, as continuing to criminalize the primary violations would not alleviate the problem. The first step taken was to re-evaluate the relationship between the schools and the police. Until recently, Vineland Police Officers were often called for minor infractions that could be handled under school disciplinary regulations. A Vineland Police Captain, along with the Vineland Assistant Superintendent, met with each of the principals at all of the schools to discuss why police were being called, explained the repercussions of this arrangement, and established a new protocol wherein officers would only be called if all other mediation attempts were exhausted. Of course, they would still be called for any assault, weapons, or drug violations. Together, they discussed how this change could take place and what it would look like for the schools. Simultaneously, the Vineland Police Captain instated a culture change within his ranks, both by combining the community policing unit with the juvenile unit, and by promoting a more supportive, positive role for officers on the streets and in the schools through safety awareness events and participating in CCPYDC’s initiatives with students.

Vineland Public School District also made a culture change. The Board of Education re-assigned many school administrators in the hope that it would alleviate and reduce the more aggressive/hardline disciplinary practices. They also set out clear expectations with their principals, security officers, guidance counselors and teachers to use restorative justice practices such as mediation, meetings with parents, and counseling as first responses to misbehavior. If the problem persists and a student commits a crime, school staff then contacts law enforcement to discuss the possibility of Stationhouse Adjustment. Stationhouse Adjustment is a diversion program wherein first-time offenders of certain low level crimes may avoid family court by meeting with a Chaplain, discussing the problem, and doing several hours of community service as restitution. The school district has also provided training to school personnel on positive behavioral interventions and supports through Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

Restorative Justice/Positive Youth Development

WRI and CCPYDC have been able to facilitate connections so that school personnel are made aware of behavioral health issues and receive training from community experts in areas such as crisis management and signs of behavioral health problems. Additionally, school administration have promoted the use of Chaplains in schools as mentors/counselors, School Resource Officers for positive contact with law enforcement, and support programs in the community such as the Cumberland County Youth for Success Initiative and established a county-wide, uniform, Stationhouse Adjustment process.

Results

The number of arrests at Vineland High School has reduced dramatically (by 45.1% since 2013), as has the suspension rate. Stationhouse Adjustments have also increased across the community, but school personnel are working specifically with Community Policing/Juvenile Officers and the Prosecutor’s Office to extend the opportunity for this diversion program where possible.