In response to data indicating that components of the Juvenile Justice System in Utah are flawed and ineffective, the Utah State Legislature passed House Bill 239 in the 2017 session. Most of the law went into effect on Aug. 1, 2017, leaving the Juvenile Justice System and school districts across the state scrambling to enact policy and procedure to deal with juvenile criminal offenses no longer referable to juvenile court.
Under the new legislation, offenses committed on school property or at school functions off school property that are less than a Class B misdemeanor, can no longer be referred to juvenile court. Such referrals in the past have included truancy, disorderly conduct, tobacco, and habitual disruptive behavior.
According to Larry W. Davis, superintendent of the Emery School District, “These types of referrals, less than a Class B misdemeanor, are typically the offenses that have most often gone to court, especially truancy.” With that no longer an option, the superintendent said, “We will have to rely on our school administrators to add additional layers of school-level consequences for these violations.”
In a recent memo to school district principals and administrators, the superintendent detailed the district’s position: “All criminal offenses committed by students enrolled in Emery District schools that occur on school property, or at school-sponsored activities off campus, that are not referable to juvenile court will be dealt with by the school administration in accordance with state law. Such criminal actions may result in fees, suspension, expulsion, participation sanctions, probation, restitution, school service hours, behavior modification programs/placement, and other consequences as deemed appropriate and necessary. Failure to comply with a school administrator’s judgement on such criminal offenses will result in a referral to the appropriate intervention agency.” Such referrals could include the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) and Four Corners Behavioral Health.
While the Juvenile Justice System and the Utah State Board of Education have offered several options for dealing with youth offenders other than a juvenile court referral, those options generally are not available to or do not fit the dynamic of the Emery School District. According to Superintendent Davis, “Our first instinct was to adopt a Youth Court program which would put the juvenile offender in a court setting with peers serving as judge and other court officials while being supervised by an adult. That would have taken the extra burden off our principals.”
The superintendent completed the application for Youth Court and presented the proposal to the school board where it was given a favorable response. However, the rules for Youth Court were changed, leaving it less desirable for the district. “Initially, we liked the Youth Court requirement that an offender had to agree to enter a guilty plea to the charges before being allowed to be heard in court,” the superintendent said. “At some point, however, that requirement was eliminated, and that was a deal-breaker for us. We didn’t want a Youth Court to have to make a determination of innocence or guilt. We only wanted it to render judgments to those admitting to their crime.”
Other options referenced by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice include Youth Receiving Centers and Mobile Crisis Outreach Teams. Receiving Centers are typically known as Youth Detention Centers, and one is available in Price. However, while youth offenders may be taken to the center, they will not be admitted. That can only come from a judge’s ruling or order. If the offense is nonreferable to juvenile court, a judge cannot make that order. Those taken to Receiving Centers would be held for short periods of time to “cool off” until parents are able to intervene. The option of a Mobile Crisis Outreach Team, which would include social workers and law-enforcement personnel making home visits, is not available in Emery County.
The superintendent has identified truancy as being the biggest concern relevant to the new law. “In our district, students become truant when they have eight unexcused absences at any point in the school year,” he said. “Prior to that eighth unexcused absence, however, there is a notification process and conferences with students, parents, and school administrators as a means of mitigating the problem.”
Since schools can no longer refer truancy to juvenile court under any circumstances, school administrators now have the responsibility of working with the parents and students on a corrective plan of action. That could include a wide range of school-level consequences designed to resolve attendance and other associated problems. If school officials have reason to believe that parent abuse or neglect is contributing to truancy, a referral will be made to DCFS for follow-up investigation. When it comes to students in the Emery District missing school, it is the responsibility of a parent/guardian to notify the school prior to or the day of the absence.
Principals and district office administrators have already begun the discussion regarding consequences that may be applied to various criminal acts by students on school grounds and at school-sponsored activities off campus. “We want to establish a reasonable level of consistency from principal to principal on how we are going to handle offenses that can no longer be referred to court,” Superintendent Davis said. “Still, we have to respect the differences in age, grade level, and circumstances. We don’t want to create a punitive system designed to make kids suffer. We want our actions to be learning experiences that lead to better decision-making on the part of the student and in some cases the parent.”
The Juvenile Justice System does offer additional help through youth and family programs that the Emery District will have at its disposal. Candy Price from that agency has been assigned to Emery County to work with youth individually and in small groups. She will also extend services to families through a program titled Strengthening Families. In addition, the district has some funding to pursue on-line programs, corrective packets, and tracking. Job Corps representatives have also made their services available for consideration.
Following is a summary of some offenses that may still be referred to juvenile court:
Alcohol- possession, consumption, failing a breathalyzer or blood test
Property- criminal mischief that results in damage to critical infrastructure; vandalism; graffiti; reckless burning which endangers human life or results in property damage in excess of $500
Drugs- sale, manufacture, or possession of a controlled substance; use or possession of psychotoxic chemicals
Behavior- criminal mischief resulting in reckless endangerment of human life; disruption of school activities and failure to leave premises; disrupting of the operation of a school; failure to disburse; gambling; criminal trespass on school property; making a false alarm
Person- assault of any kind
Sex- accessing pornographic materials on school property
Theft- theft of any kind; receiving stolen property
Tobacco- distribution of tobacco products to others (second and subsequent offenses)
Driving/Traffic- using handheld device to text/email while operating vehicle (second and subsequent offenses); engaging in a speed contest on a highway; DUI; reckless driving
For additional information about this article, please contact Superintendent Davis at: