By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
WOODLAKE – What is the best way to prevent crime? Local school districts and police departments think it’s by catching criminals … before they are criminals.
Woodlake Unified School District became the second school district in Tulare County to implement a Juvenile Diversion Program (JDP) last month when the school board unanimously approved the joint program between district and the Woodlake Police Department.
Woodlake Unified Superintendent Alfonso Gamino said the program is 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. Students attending Woodlake middle and high schools who get into trouble with the law will be 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.
“It’s a way to help our students, keep our schools safe and help keep our suspension and expulsion rates low,” Gamino said.
Woodlake’s suspension rate has been on the rise over the last three years from 4.8% to 6.5% after four years of improvement, according to the California Department of Education. WUSD also had more than 10 expulsions in the last three years.
That’s higher than Exeter Unified School District which implemented the first JDP three years ago. 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. Stark said he was not sure if Woodlake’s program was based on his own, but he did say that he shared the plan with the Woodlake Police Department early last year in the hopes of implementing it in other districts.
“It’s been extremely beneficial to the kids, the police department and to the community,” Stark said.
Stark said JDP in Exeter has helped at least 25 students avoid having a criminal record in its first three years. He remembers one student who went through the program early on in his high school career. Stark ran into the student after he had graduated from high school and he told the officer that he had spent the entire summer working odd jobs just to stay out of trouble.
“Sometimes you wonder if the kids are acting just to get through the program, but then you meet ones like that who confirm that you made a difference in their lives,” Stark said. “Really everyone wins in that situation.”
JDP is completely voluntary and only works if the juvenile and their parents or guardians all agree to the terms and conditions. If the parent doubts that their child committed the offense, or if the student refuses to participate in the program, Officer Stark refers the case to the Tulare County Probation Department or the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office for official action.
The JDP board is comprised of three community members, Officer Stark and a Probation officer. The board only meets once per month and only during months when there are students participating in the program.
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.
Students in the program must follow certain rules, such as obeying parents, teachers and those in authority; no negative contact with any law enforcement; obey curfew rules; attend school without unexcused tardiness or absences; maintain a passing grade in all classes.
In addition to following rules and staying out of trouble, the program requires students take several corrective actions to demonstrate their willingness to change. Those include writing a letter of apology to the victim (another student, property owner, school staff), complete community service hours in addition to those required to graduate, a book report on a book about how criminal actions affect your community, restitution, mandatory classes, counseling, visiting a prison and developing a five and 10-year plan for your life and the steps the student will take to accomplish that goal.
“If the student even gets in a verbal argument with someone, that could get them kicked out of the program,” Stark said. “A lot of the program is based on changing their behaviors.”
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 Probation.
Woodlake has not implemented its program yet but may be in need of citizen volunteers to sit on the JDP Board. Those interested should contact the Woodlake Police Department at 559-564-3346.