NCSSD Blog Interview with Judge J. H. Corpening: Inter-Agency Governance Agreements and Addressing The School-to-Prison Pipeline

Honorable Judge J. H. Corpening is the chief district court judge for the 5th Judicial District, serving New Hanover and Pender counties of North Carolina. He currently leads efforts to reduce the school-to-prison pipeline through an inter-agency agreement that will bring schools, law enforcement, and courts together. Judge Corpening granted us an interview for the National Clearinghouse on Supportive School Discipline, focusing on this agreement and the county’s related initiatives.


Q: Why was the Inter-Agency Governance Agreement necessary? What was the overarching goal of the agreement?

A: The goal of the agreement was to address the school-to-prison pipeline. To address this issue, an agreement between the schools, law enforcement, and the court system was needed. We had to work together to address the issue. During the planning process, we didn’t want to call it a memorandum of understanding because this effort was a real, cohesive agreement between the schools, law enforcement, and the courts.

Q: What drew your attention to the school-to-prison pipeline?

A: I actually had never heard of the school-to-prison pipeline until I attended a National Summit on School–Justice Partnerships in New York City in 2012. At the summit, Judge Steve Teske of Clayton County, Georgia, gave a presentation on the reforms he leads to address the school-to-prison pipeline. The presentation struck a nerve with me. I thought about the kids who were being charged when they shouldn’t be charged. After the summit, I immediately called my school superintendent and we began the planning process for bringing about similar reforms in New Hanover County. This reform would go much deeper than youth discipline, it would affect the entire school climate and classroom culture.

Q: How did the Sandy Hook tragedy affect your reform efforts?

A: In the aftermath of the shooting tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, our district attorney called for a school safety summit, and it was there that we put together a school safety task force. Additionally, we brought in education and child development researchers from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington to assist in efforts to make our schools safer through cross-county partnerships. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook there was a need to address school safety and school climate. Looking more closely at the behavior of students who are acting out is a better strategy than using exclusionary practices as we work to improve relationships and school climate. One of the specific recommendations of the school safety task force was to develop an agreement like this.

Q: You mentioned exclusionary practices, are you referencing suspensions? What role did suspensions play in the development of the agreement?

A: In the agreement, we wanted to fundamentally change the mindsets of teachers and administrators related to using exclusionary practices to punish unruly students. We developed a graduated response model as a tool to help teachers and administrators address behaviors in the classroom and the school before law enforcement becomes involved. Neither of our systems handle youth discipline particularly well; a great way to change that is to look at the underlying issues that affect youth behavior and treat the cause of the behavior. Exclusionary practices such as 10-day suspensions may prove to be even more harmful for youth when you consider that they will most likely spend those days on the street in dangerous environments. Although our agreement does not specifically reference suspensions, it does discuss factors to be considered before any discipline is imposed.

Q: How did the Graduated Response Model work?

A: The first step was to start with redirection of poor behavior in the classroom. We wanted to know whether the behavior was affecting classroom instruction. For example, a student playing with a pencil can prove to be an annoyance for a teacher, but it is not an action that can be classified as a disruptive classroom behavior or necessarily one that interferes with learning. Involving administration, school-based teams, and law enforcement in school discipline incidents should be only when absolutely necessary—and in some instances it is unnecessary.

In addition, we wanted to address the root cause of these behaviors, so one of the tools in the graduated response model is a list of focus acts that youth may exhibit through behavior. Based on the specifics of these acts, the Graduated Response Model will be activated and the appropriate measures will be taken. Schools still have the right to suspend students as they see fit, but if the students are not charged by law enforcement for their behavior, the Graduated Response Model will be activated.

Q: Did parents play a role in the agreement development process? What were the parents’ responses to the Inter-Agency Governance Agreement?

A: We had several parents involved in the development process of the agreement; however, lack of parental involvement has always been a problem. Including parents in the discussion for addressing youth problems is by no means easy. Our Graduated Response Model includes a place for parents to be involved. We know that a lack of parental involvement only increases the need for interventions to promote positive youth development in schools. And unfortunately minority children and poverty stricken children suffer due to the lack of parental involvement, which poses an even greater challenge for students and educators.

Q: How did you gather the data on suspensions of youth? What did the data tell you?

A: Compiling data on suspensions was key to starting the process for reform and the development of the Inter-Agency Governance Agreement. School suspension data along with data on criminal charges were compiled and disaggregated by age, sex, and race over several years. It was important for the Inter-Agency Governance Agreement to be evidence based and data driven, so we enlisted the services of researchers from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington to assist us. We analyzed the data in as many ways as we could, and the data indicated that we have a problem here. When looking at the suspension rates of minority students, we found that disproportionate minority contact (DMC) was abundantly clear. The numbers related to DMC were not quite as significant at the criminal level as they were for the suspension rates, but the trends were notable.

The agreement also puts an oversight committee in place to ensure that data are collected on a quarterly basis. The committee will also revisit the agreement, the data collection process, reliability, and validity of the data and recommend changes on a yearly basis.

Q: You mentioned Disproportionate Minority Contact. To what extent is DMC affecting youth in your county? Does the agreement have any measures for addressing DMC?

A: When you look at the population of minority youth in our schools, which is 29%, and compare that to the fact that 65% of students who are suspended  are minority youth, you realize that there is a disproportionate contact in the schools related to the way in which minority youth are disciplined compared with their White classmates. This problem calls for an honest and open discussion of disruptive by youth and the school administrations’ responses. There are no plans specifically outlined in the agreement to address DMC, but although we look at other counties across the country where reform is occurring, we see no coincidence that the strategic rethinking of discipline policies and practices can help districts address DMC.

Q: What are some of the indicators of progress you are looking for in terms of data? Have you seen any progress thus far?

A: We are in the early days of our Inter-Agency Governance Agreement. It was voted on and passed only recently. But since the entire process for reform and development of this agreement began, we have seen noticeably fewer youth being charged for crimes. At the 18-month to 2-year stage, we hope to see the full roll-out and implementation of the different diversion tactics that are in the agreement. Although it is too soon to notice any dramatic impact from the data, we do have a window of 5 to 6 years that we hope to see the significant changes we seek in our reform efforts.

Q: How have school resource officers reacted to the agreement? Have new training measures been necessary for teachers and administrators?

A: Our elected county sheriff is a former SRO, so he has been on board with the agreement since Day 1. Additionally, our police chief has been vocally supportive of the steps we’ve taken to address behavior rather than charge students. Training is taking place—in fact we recently conducted a 2-hour training for school resource officers on new responsibilities and responses based on the agreement. Principals, administrators, and teachers will also be trained on how to use the new diversion techniques outlined in the agreement and the graduated response model. But a problem I’ve noticed is that teachers are extremely well-equipped to lead classroom learning but some struggle in dealing with classroom behavior management. There could be an underlying issue that needs to be addressed at the collegiate level in further support of professional training and ongoing development for teachers. Of course, we need to provide as much support to our teachers as we can.

 Q: What are some of the challenges you faced in the development of the agreement?

A: The first challenge was determining who we wanted to include in the process. We knew from the start that the group needed to be cross-agency and include key decision makers. I remember being at our first meeting in Wilmington and realizing an hour into our discussion that we needed another individual at the table. Much later we also realized that we should’ve included the Board of Education’s attorney at the development phase of the agreement. When he took a look at our draft from a legal perspective, he brought it back to us with significant changes, so the lost time revising the agreement for the Board of Education in a legal framework could’ve been avoided if he were involved sooner. We had a high school principal on our team, but I wish we could have included at the table a middle school principal and an elementary school principal to benefit from their unique perspectives, all from varying stages of child/youth development. In addition, it would have helped in informing the principals of our plans and ensuring them that we were not unduly restricting their procedures for discipline. So that was the first major hurdle—getting everyone at the table who needed to be there. Another challenge was getting folks to compromise and realize that we all have to share some responsibilities for our youth. This is a very common challenge.

Q: What advice would you give to localities looking to venture on this journey of interagency reform?

A: Be patient. We initially believed that an agreement could be finalized in a 6-month period, and it ended up taking us 20 months. So being patient is very important. Be transparent. When dealing with issues like this, you need to make sure everyone is aware of the process. It is also very important to have relationships with individuals within these other agencies. I was very fortunate to have good relationships with the key decision makers needed to set up the agreement.

Q: So far, what has been the response to the agreement from the community?

A: The response from the community has been very positive. Our local paper ran an editorial praising the agreement. And our local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter’s parent council has been very vocal about its support of the agreement. Nonetheless we still need to educate everyone on the agreement as it goes forward on a case-by-case basis. 

As part of the expert blog series, Judge Corpening has responded to additional questions from readers and visitors to the Supportive School Discipline website regarding the School Discipline and Juvenile Justice reform efforts in North Carolina. 

Question from Reader/Visitor: What were all of the agencies, organizations and stakeholder groups invovled in the development of the inter-agency agreement? 

Response from Judge Corpening: The foundation of the success we have achieved in New Hanover County, North Carolina was the composition of the working group we convened to develop a memorandum of understanding to address the School-to-Prison Pipeline.  My Superintendent of Schools and I spent a considerable amount of time discussing the makeup of our team.  We recognized that the team needed to have significant representation from schools, law enforcement, and courts, but we also recognized that we needed representation from other disciplines.  We actually agreed on “categories” or “disciplines” that needed to be represented before we discussed individual names.  We also agreed that in some circumstances it might be better to ask an agency head (decision maker) to send a specific senior assistant who might have more “boots on the ground” experience and have more to offer in a working group like ours. 

To continue reading Judge Corpening's response to the question regarding the involvement of agencies, organizaitons, stakeholder groups click here: Judge Corpening on Invlolving Agencies, Organizations, and Stakeholders

Question from Reader: What are the specific diversion tactics? What types and levels of collaboration are necessary for these tactics to be effective? 

Response from Judge Corpening: Our agreement is a graduated response model.  Diversion is one part of this model.  We currently use one diversion strategy, and are working to develop others.  It is important to remember that the hardest work begins after the agreement is reached, and is centered in the development of appropriate graduated response models.  One of the greatest challenges is that the same model may not work in more than one school because of varied resources and personnel.  Our agreement was signed on November 2, 2015, and we are still working to develop disciplinary strategies, diversions, and to implement site based training.

To continue reading Judge Corpening's response to the question regarding diversion tactics click here: Judge Corpening on Diversion Tactics

Question form Reader: What are some of the specific classroom strategies for teachers? Was/is there a need for teacher professional development around these strategies? 

Response from Judge Corpening: A change in policy of this magnitude requires a re-examination of techniques that have been used in the classroom, and the development of new tools. To some extent, we have to learn to teach behavior, as well as math, science, and English. Professional development will be an ongoing process as we implement our procedures, and analyze the results.

To continue reading Judge Corpening's response to the question regarding classroom strategies and professional development for teachers click here: Judge Corpening's on Classroom Strategies and Professional Development 


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