Alamance-Burlington school board members voted 7-0 Monday afternoon to approve a pilot project, called the Alamance Juvenile Opportunity Bridge (AJOB), which aims to cut off the school-to-prison pipeline.
If the pilot is successful and is extended beyond the initial four-month term, ABSS won’t incur any expenses for AJOB for the first few years, school board members were told Monday.
Alamance County district court judge Larry Brown – who has long advocated for establishing a court diversion program for first-time juvenile offenders – told the school board Monday afternoon that creation of the AJOB program represents the culmination of about 1½ years’ of work by him and other leaders in the county.
“I repeatedly had people come to me and ask, ‘what is leadership doing in Alamance County to help children [and curb violence]?’” Brown recalled Monday.
“AJOB is another way to help children,” Brown said, adding that he had secured support for the program from Alamance County chief district court judge Brad Allen, Sr. and district attorney Sean Boone. He also pointed to statistics that he said have shown that, once a petition is issued for a juvenile, that individual is 40 percent more likely to end up in the adult court system over time.
School board members held a special-called meeting Monday afternoon to approve a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to launch the AJOB program. The school board’s approval was needed in order to meet a January 31 deadline to apply for a grant through the Governor’s Crime Commission, which officials at Alamance Community College are handling.
Scott Doron, vice president of special projects and strategic growth for ACC, told the school board Monday that he had secured $63,000 in seed money to launch AJOB from Impact Alamance (the charitable arm of Cone Health) and the state Juvenile Crime Prevention Council. Doron said he expects the initial grant money will fund AJOB through this fall.
AJOB will be limited initially to a maximum of 30 eligible juvenile offenders, ages 14 and 17, who are identified as at-risk or are on probation for misdemeanor offenses (as well as those ages 18 and 21 who are still under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court system). Eligible participants also must currently be enrolled in a K-12 school, home school, or ACC, under the terms of the agreement that school board members later voted 7-0 to approve Monday afternoon.
The program allows first-time offenders – who must be referred by juvenile court officials and/or School Resource Officers (SROs) – to take up to 20 hours’ of workforce development classes at Alamance Community College. That coursework at ACC would be in lieu of performing community service hours in some cases, as the program was described Monday afternoon. Participants also must plead guilty to their charges.
The AJOB program initially will be limited to first-time juvenile offenders who are charged with committing a misdemeanor crime on school property, the school board was told Monday.
Alamance Community College has agreed to provide AJOB participants with the following: weekly career exploration classes; training in soft skills (i.e., time management, interviewing skills, and proper workplace dress and conduct); and hands-on training needed to gain certification to work in the cosmetology, nursing, and culinary fields, as well as electrical and mechanical jobs and other trades.
AJOB will include an eight-week “course module” at ACC – which, Brown emphasized, will be free of charge to the program’s participants. Calling himself a big believer in “sweat equity,” the district court judge said this program allows youthful offenders to “learn a tangible skill,” spark their curiosity, possibly earn professional certification, and finish the program with marketable skills that are in high demand.
Numerous local agencies have joined forces to create AJOB, including: ACC; the county courts system; the Alamance County sheriff’s office; every municipal police department in the county; the state division of juvenile justice; and Roots & Wings of Person County, a nonprofit based in Roxboro that operates a “teen court” diversion program, in conjunction with law enforcement and court officials, The teen court program enables first-time juvenile offenders who are charged with misdemeanor crimes to be sentenced by other teens, with the goal of giving them a second chance while also requiring youthful offenders to repair the damage caused by their actions, as it was explained to the school board Monday.
‘Hands-on experience and hope’
“One of several things will happen,” Brown told the school board. “One, teen court shouldn’t be the only option to divert young people out of the juvenile [court] system. The worst thing that could happen is they get hands-on experience…the worst thing that could happen is they get hope.” AJOB, he added, gives educators, law enforcement, and court officials “a new tool in their tool belt to help children.”
OFFICIALS OPTIMISTIC ABOUT THE NEW PROGRAM
“This is a very important program [that] can make a tremendous difference in our county. There’s a school-to-prison pipeline nationally and locally. This is one way to change that trajectory. So often, students find themselves in situations where they have to make very fast decisions [and] often make the wrong decision. What do we call that? I call it a mistake.” – Alamance Community College president Dr. Algie Gatewood
“One of several things will happen. One, teen court shouldn’t be the only option to divert young people out of the juvenile [court] system. The worst thing that could happen is they get hands-on experience…the worst thing that could happen is they get hope.” – District court judge Larry Brown
“This is a very important program [that] can make a tremendous difference in our county,” ACC president Dr. Algie Gatewood told school board members Monday afternoon. There’s a school-to-prison pipeline nationally and locally, he said. “This is one way to change that trajectory,” Gatewood explained. “So often, students find themselves in situations where they have to make very fast decisions [and] often make the wrong decision. What do we call that? I call it a mistake.”
“This will be a way for a student to get excited about learning – in a way he or she hasn’t in the past,” Gatewood said Monday. “In this case, everybody wins: the student wins; the family wins…the entire society wins. When I think about a county having people who are more educated, I think of less crime, better healthcare.” And having more people who complete their high school education and beyond makes it easier for the county to attract new business and industry, and the first thing they look for is whether the local workforce has what is “necessary to thrive and survive,” Gatewood elaborated.
ACC applying for $200K state grant
The VP of special projects at ACC, Doron, told the board that the initial grant money would fund materials, instructors, and related expenses for AJOB “through most of the fall.” By January 2024, “if things work out, we will have received a $200,000 grant from the Governor’s Crime Commission,” he said Monday. ACC will be tracking statistics to gauge the program’s effectiveness, Doron explained. He also acknowledged that similar initiatives have started strong but eventually fell by the wayside.
“The first year, it’s great, and it drops away – but that’s not how we run things,” Doron emphasized, alluding to similar efforts by ACC. Around 2016, ACC launched a medical bridge program, a summer camp for middle and high school students, to encourage more minorities to pursue careers in medicine; that program has received hundreds of thousands in grants from organizations such as the Burroughs Welcome Fund.
Brown said Monday that Roots and Wings, the nonprofit in Roxboro, has agreed to provide transportation for AJOB participants to attend classes at ACC. “It’s going to be fun, and it’s going to be hands-on,” he said. “We don’t want our children breaking into somebody’s home; we don’t want our children [leading police] on a high-speed chase. Rather than a child go and pick up trash, a child can go and get an education. I believe in sweat equity. It’s in connection with teen court, to provide community service, but would be through AJOB.”
Brown told the school board members that, while the course schedule is still being developed, AJOB classes may be held on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“This is a great way to redirect these youth who get in trouble at school and hopefully put them on a path to success,” said school board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves. “I’m hopeful this program will help them develop skills to become productive adults.”
The initial term for the MOU will run from February 16 through June 30, 2023.
Gatewood later told The Alamance News that ACC’s board of trustees had heard a presentation about the AJOB program in October 2022 but hadn’t been required to vote on approving the MOU because it didn’t require a significant financial investment from the community college.
“Nationally, our leaders understand we have a school-to-prison pipeline, and our resources would be better-used getting [juvenile offenders] the skills to enter the workforce, rather than getting caught in a vicious cycle,” Gatewood said in a brief subsequent interview.