Woodlake Unified program helps divert kids from a life of crime

Woodlake Unified School District’s Juvenile Diversion program is helping to keep students in school by reducing suspensions

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

WOODLAKE – A new program at Woodlake Unified School District is keeping kids in school, off the streets, and out of trouble with the law.

At its March 13 meeting, the Woodlake Unified School District board of trustees received an update on the progress of its Juvenile Diversion Program (JDP). The board approved the program last summer as an opportunity to keep kids out of the juvenile justice system by educating and disciplining them about and for their crimes on their first offense. Under the program, students attending Woodlake middle and high schools who get into trouble with the law are given an opportunity to either accept the consequences of the crime showing on their juvenile record, or complete the program before the crime is ever entered into the system.

Juveniles in the program are evaluated by a three-member board consisting of WHS Assistant Principal Dr. Michael Burchett, WVMS Principal Rinaldi, and Woodlake Police Chief Mike Marquez. Eligible first offenses ranged from shoplifting and graffiti in the community to fighting with another student and being under the influence of drugs or alcohol at school. As part of the process, students are asked to write letters apologizing for their actions, read books on how crime impacts their community, and even commit to community service activities designed to deter crime.

“The Board works with the student and parents and the student has to sign a contract agreeing to the program,” said Woodlake Unified Superintendent Alfonso Gamino.

Seven students at Woodlake High School and four students at Woodlake Valley Middle School have entered the program. Two students have completed the program and three fell short of completing the program. Those who fail to complete the program will have the offense listed on their juvenile records.

Gamino said the program was intended to address a deficiency in Woodlake’s academic performance standards listed on the California Department of Education’s accountability system known as the California School Dashboard. The Dashboard not only tracks whether or not students are meeting standards in English and math but also their absenteeism, graduation, and suspension rates for students by demographics.

Woodlake’s suspension rate peaked in the 2016-2017 school year, the year before the program was implemented, at 7% after three straight years of increases, according to the California Department of Education.

The suspension rate dropped by 4% overall in 2017-2018 and across all student groups. So far, Gamino said there have been a total of 16 suspensions at Woodlake High School this school year compared with 25 suspensions in 2017-18.

“We believe that number could have been much higher without the program,” Gamino said. “I do believe it will be less than 25 by the end of the year.”

At Woodlake Valley Middle School, the drop has been more dramatic. The 6-8 grade school has 15 suspensions so far this school year compared with a total of 39 in the 2017-18 school year.

“I believe both schools will have less suspensions by the end of the year, which was the intended purpose, so we are considering it a success so far,” Gamino said.

Woodlake Unified is the second school district in the county to implement the program. JDP was created in 2015 by Kyle Stark, the youth development officer for the Exeter Police Department. Since the JDP was initiated in 2015, Exeter Unified’s suspension rate has dropped from 6.2% to 5.4% and there was just one expulsion between 2015-16 and 2017-18. In an interview last summer, Stark said JDP in Exeter has helped at least 25 students avoid having a criminal record in its first three years.

At the initial meeting, the juvenile is read the charges against them. Even if the juvenile admits to the charge they are not entered into the juvenile record if the child chooses to participate in the program. The student signs a contract agreeing to the terms and conditions. The police citation of the offense is kept on file with the EPD until the child reaches 18 and the offense is expunged from their record. If the students breaks any part of the contract, the original citation and the new offense will both be referred to Tulare County Probation.

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