By Emily Younker
Joplin Schools will pilot a juvenile drug court program this fall with the assistance of a Jasper County judge.
“The overall objective is to have deep and lasting impact on students’ lives who have issues with drugs,” said Jason Cravens, the district’s director of secondary education. “It’s really to provide accountability where it keeps all kids safe, but at the same time, it helps the kid who has the issue get help, so it’s really a win-win in that case.”
The program will send adolescent drug offenders at Joplin schools to Circuit Judge Gayle Crane, who will help arrange for treatment, counseling, substance abuse educational material or other forms of rehabilitation for students while they remain in school, Cravens said.
Student drug offenses in Joplin have typically resulted in long-term suspension from school under district policy, according to Cravens. Getting treatment or counseling through a drug court program could help students get at the root of their problems — an outcome that is unlikely with suspension, he said.
“We (currently) don’t have any way to get deep, and what happens is kids go out and come back and associate with the same friends, and the pattern never changes,” he said.
The Joplin program will be modeled after a similar juvenile drug court launched a few years ago in Newton County by Circuit Judge Tim Perigo, who said he “wasn’t pleased” with the way youth drug offenses and suspensions were being handled by local schools. Perigo has also overseen an adult drug court, one of the first in the state, in Newton County for about 15 years.
In Perigo’s program, students meet regularly with a “drug court team” at school before or after classes to discuss issues such as attendance, grades, community service and random drug tests. It serves primarily students who are caught with drugs or alcohol on school property, he said.
A graduate of that program told the Globe that it saved her life. The 17-year-old who is in foster care said she began using drugs at age 12 with her biological mother and was eventually showing up high at school every morning.
She was referred to Perigo’s court after she was caught at school with drugs and alcohol in her purse. She rebelled, instead preferring to continue the lifestyle she knew, but she had no choice.
In the program, she stayed in school and took twice-weekly classes at night that covered “a little bit of everything,” including drug recovery, family dynamics and goal-setting. The first four to six months were the most difficult, she said, because the program works best if an individual wants to change — and she didn’t, at first.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever went through,” she said. “But it helps you become prepared for adulthood, and live on your own and set goals.”
She has now been sober for a year and seven months. She is officially a drug court graduate, but she remains in counseling for now. A high school senior at Neosho, she plans to attend Crowder College following her graduation next May.
“It’s a life-changing program in general,” she said. “I don’t want to imagine where my life would be without it.”
Tim Crawley, director of operations for the Neosho School District, praised the juvenile drug court program. He said that before its implementation, drug infractions carried suspensions from school of up to 180 days for young offenders, which sometimes caused the students to lose credits and delay graduation from high school.
But drug court “recognizes they made a mistake” and offers support to help them work through their issues while continuing to work through school, he said.
“Really, it’s like a helping hand; it’s not a punishment,” he said. “We know they’re kids, and it’s our responsibility to help them learn, and it sometimes goes beyond learning your vowel sounds and mathematics and science.”
As a former school resource officer in Neosho, Dereck Price, Newton County deputy juvenile officer, said it was “disturbing” how many drug- and alcohol-related incidents he saw in the schools before the program. Now, student offenders who are referred to drug court not only stay in school, where adults can watch over them, but they also are counseled to get at the heart of their problems, which typically run deeper than substance abuse, he said.
“Drugs is how it kind of manifests itself, but the real reason could be some family stuff going on, so whenever you can get into that, you can solve some problems,” he said.
Cravens said Joplin, like most school districts, has dealt with drugs and alcohol on its campus.
“It’s a problem, I would say, as a country within schools,” he said. “It varies based upon the culture of a town or kids, but drugs and alcohol — just because you’re dealing with teens in general — is going to be an issue in some form or fashion.”
Crane said several case managers, court administrators and treatment specialists are already on board with the Joplin program, which will be ready to go when school starts later this month.
“The way I see it, every time you can save one of these kids, it reduces my criminal docket, which is why I got involved,” she said.
The proposal received support last week from Joplin School Board members, who said they saw benefits of implementing it within the district.
Board member Michael Landis said the program would be a better alternative to suspending students for drug offenses.
“When we’re suspending a child, it’s a disservice to the school district, it’s a disservice to the courts, it’s a disservice to everybody,” he said.
The idea of a drug court for youths isn’t a new one. Missouri is home to more drug courts per capita than any other state, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
There were 1,438 adult drug courts and 458 juvenile drug courts in the United States as of last year, according to the National Drug Court Resource Center. About 75 adult courts and nearly two dozen juvenile courts were in Missouri as of 2008, the most recent year for which data were available, according to the Missouri Association of Drug Court Professionals.
According to the national association, 75 percent of all drug court graduates nationwide remain arrest-free two years after leaving the program.
There hasn’t been as much research conducted on juvenile drug courts as on adult courts because of their relative newness. But a 2010 report from the national association cites studies suggesting that young drug court participants are less likely than young adults on juvenile probation to be re-arrested or arrested for a new offense after their rehabilitation.
Jasper County Circuit Judge Gayle Crane said implementing the juvenile drug court program would be at no cost to the Joplin School District, that it would be funded by grants from the state Department of Social Services’ Division of Youth Services.