ST. GEORGE – In light of recent kidnapping charges brought against three male juveniles for abducting a female jogger, also a juvenile, in Santa Clara on April 30, considerable and contradictory messages are coursing through community chatter, social media commentary and media. Opinions and speculation range from those who see the incident as a mere prank to those who see the youths deserving of being drawn and quartered.
If emotions can be set aside, some perspective on the Washington County Juvenile Court process and the interplay of the Washington County School District’s disciplinary role will inform the discussion.
The Justice System
Unlike a criminal prosecution against an adult offender, where the Washington County Attorney’s office brings an action on behalf of the people of the county against the offender, actions against juveniles are petitions made “in the interest of” the named juvenile offender. You do not see a case title “People v. Johnny,” you do see “In the interest of Johnny.”
The charging papers will analogize to an adult offense; in this case, the charging papers indicate that if it were an adult case the charges would rate a second-degree felony. But these are not criminal charges. The analogy to a felony does, however, trigger mandatory action by the public school district as will be discussed below.
“They are considered juveniles not criminals,” said Brock Belnap, Washington County Attorney. “The focus is on accountability and rehabilitation. In juvenile court, the judge’s goal is what is in the best interest of the kid, what will best help him to normalize, adjust, will be most likely to succeed.”
Belnap said there may be counseling, interviews, parental involvement, all kinds of things taken into consideration that may emerge and be ordered within the juvenile court’s process.
The maximum penalty in juvenile cases would be Secure Confinement until the offender reaches age 21. But Belnap said that kids that receive maximum detention are only the most incorrigible where the system has lost hope of helping them.
Unwilling to predict what penalty might be imposed on the three offenders charged in the pending Santa Clara kidnapping case if found culpable, Belnap said, “It’s too early to tell with these kids.”
“I think the reason our office sees it as serious,” Belnap said, “is because of the impact it had on the victim. Just because something is a prank doesn’t mean it can’t be criminal.”
Belnap gave the example of putting a bomb in a mailbox as a prank that might be criminal.
“We’re trying to get the balance right,” he said. “Nobody wants to hurt anyone that’s involved. We’re trying to sort it out, take into consideration what the underlying factors were.”
The Public Education System
Although the Santa Clara kidnapping incident did not occur on school grounds or during school hours, the public school system is involved by mandate of Utah law.
Utah Code §53A-11-904(2)(a)(ii) requires public schools to suspend or expel a student “for the commission of an act involving the use of force or the threatened use of force which if committed by an adult would be a felony or class A misdemeanor.”
The statute is not equivocal. When and where the causal event occurred is irrelevant. Once charges are filed against a student that would constitute a felony if the student was an adult, the school is mandated to either suspend or expel the student. The County Attorney’s office and law enforcement authorities notify the school district of these kinds of incidents as a matter of course.
Suspension is removal from school for 10 days or less, and suspension is subject to certain due process rights including oral or written notice of the charges brought against the student. These rights were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1975 in its decision in Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 454.
Therefore, for acts that are not committed on school property, but may be subject to the state’s mandate that disciplinary action be taken, the school district’s action may not be instantaneous; it will likely hinge on the school receiving notice that charges have been brought, and then the administration will follow due process. (The speediest removal action would of course come into play in instances where there is a serious and immediate threat to the safety of other students.)
Expulsion denies the student further public education.
Craig Hammer, Executive Director of Secondary Schools in Washington County School District, said that the WCSD does not expel kids. It implements a process called Temporary Disciplinary Transfer or TDT if action more severe than 10 days suspension is appropriate.
“It doesn’t mean we can’t expel,” said Hammer,” but a student would have to do something pretty serious …; we have found out that when you expel a student for a year, that’s pretty much a death sentence for a student, they’re not going to graduate. So you have to weigh that. TDT provides some type of education, it can’t be in our buildings on our grounds but it helps parents and it keeps (the student) on track and they can still graduate.”
Provisions of the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protect the privacy of student records in educational matters and serve to restrict public school administrators from speaking specifically on action taken against any particular student. As a result, Hammer was constrained from specifically speaking to the Santa Clara kidnapping incident and from discussing anything pertaining to the students involved.
It is nonetheless reasonable to infer that reports of students being expelled are unfounded as expulsion is not the current practice of the WCSD in these kinds of matters.
It is equally reasonable to infer that the students will be subjected to some disciplinary process, which may include suspension, TDT, or other action suitable to the students’ needs.
In the interest of kids
Hammer summed it up well in a statement that similarly echoed the goals of the County Attorney’s office expressed by Belnap:
“We are in the business of helping save kids,” Hammer said, “we are not in the business of getting rid of kids.”
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Copyright 2012 St. George News.