Restorative Justice Program to be implemented in Clay County school districts 

county commission

Karen Newman 

At the Clay County Commission’s January 25 meeting, Clay County Attorney Brian Melton and Victim/Witness Program Director Michelle Carney requested and received $157,008 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding for a two-year Restorative Justice Coordinator position.

“Brian and I approached the ARPA committee to request funding for a full-time Restorative Justice Coordinator to address some of the issues going on within the school districts here in Clay County,” explained Carney. “It is disrupting the learning process and safety in the school environment.” She said that issues in schools are appearing across the country, not just in Clay County.

The Restorative Justice Coordinator would work with all the schools in Clay County to address incidents happening in local districts. Carney elaborated, “We would work to assess the needs in each school district because they are likely unique. We would respond to incidents that occur with the restorative approach. The Minnesota Department of Education does have a Restorative Practice Model that they utilize state-wide. They would be a resource for us as we implement this in Clay County.” Restorative justice brings together the individual responsible for a crime, the people harmed by the crime and the community affected by the crime. Restorative justice often involves a face-to-face meeting involving perpetrator and victim.

Carney continued, “For sustainability, our goal would be to train the schools to incorporate this process within their school system with the understanding that the ARPA funds are temporary, or for two years. The inclination is to provide training to those schools and administrators to incorporate these practices within the school system to sustain this programming once this funding runs out.”

Melton pointed out that Carney had appeared before the board previously to talk about the Restorative Justice Program. He said, “We do deferring to keep juveniles out of the court system. We want to be sure that we have a good impact on them so they understand the issues they may bring when they have problems. There is an immediate consequence. Looking at ways to help them understand the problems they might be having, have a larger{community} impact. We are right there in the schools, so we aren’t delaying the consequences.”

Melton continued by praising the work Carney did to as she researched to understand how the pandemic affects youth. He said, “We are seeing a lot more mental health issues, drug and alcohol issues, and a lot more social interaction issues where they have been removed from the school for a time period and when they get back there are more violent crimes and fights in the schools.”

He added, “We are seeing that fighting isn’t happening only outside the school or in the hallways. They are in the middle of the classroom and having fights right there in front of the teacher and the other students and disrupting learning. This will help to have an immediate impact so kids will understand that this is not an acceptable behavior.”

Commissioner Frank Gross asked how the proposed new position would impact school resource officers (SRO). Melton explained that the coordinator and SROs would work together to identify students that need help. Carney added, “Our hope is that if an incident occurs, they can respond within one-to-three days after the actual incident.”

Commissioner David Ebinger said he has spoken to teachers and administers and agrees that a Restorative Justice program will be a useful resource. Ebinger explained that SROs are no longer able enforce some school rules such as tobacco violations. Adding a Restorative Justice program will add to the ability to enforce those school rules, help the students understand that there is a consequence for violating them and augment the SROs jobs. He declared, “With the uptick of disruptive behaviors, this will be an additional tool for administrators and SROs to utilize. It is addressing a problem that is critical right now.”

Commissioner Kevin Campbell said, “I look on this as a similar investment to what we invest in our drug court system. Anytime that we can help our community by reducing the amount of these types of activities, it is a good investment.”

Board Chair Jenny Mongeau added her support, “I appreciate this board’s support on interventions like this. Commissioner Ebinger brings a unique view to the table having served as Moorhead Police Chief. This board spends a lot of money annually in our programs like the Regional Juvenile Detention Facility. We go above and beyond to be sure those children are offered schooling, support services, and counseling to help them go out and make the world better once they leave those doors.”

Mongeau continued, “I think that Covid has presented a really interesting challenge to our society, but particularly our youth…I hear disturbing stories about socially deviant and brash behaviors…these young people are having a hard time. In their time out of school, it is like they have forgotten how to act or maybe they were unsupervised. Giving this tool to the school districts to have someone present to support the interventions that they are trying to do is really important.”

 She concluded, “Some might say this is a school district issue. Unfortunately, when it gets to the level of crime where these young people are in our Juvenile Detention Facility, it is no longer just a school district issue. This is a Clay County issue. We must support intervention programs like this that will get children to the point that they will not be sitting in a court room. It is up to us to support programs that will change a young person’s course.”  

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