When the pandemic came to North Carolina in March 2020, schools closed for in-person classes, disrupting a cycle of schools funneling children into the juvenile justice system. Schools often handle misbehavior by referring children to juvenile court — school-based complaints made up 40-45 percent of total juvenile justice complaints in the decade before 2020. When schools weren’t in person during the pandemic, school-based juvenile justice complaints plummeted to 7 percent in 2021. In this series, we report on what exactly happened, how Black children and children with disabilities were disproportionately impacted and what this means for the future of juvenile justice in the state.

The “When kids’ cries for help become crimes” series is part of a data fellowship with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.

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Examining data and looking past it: Lessons from reporting on NC’s juvenile justice system

As a journalist covering prison health during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve often thought about the factors that lead to incarceration, and if there is a way to prevent them, to spare people the trauma of incarceration. 

The “school-to-prison pipeline,” or the idea of schools funneling children into the justice system, immediately came to mind.

The topic was timely. In 2019, North Carolina was the last state in the country to pass Raise the Age legislation in which children under 18 would largely be tried as children, not adults. Reports from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety predicted the state would see large increases in North Carolina’s juvenile justice population as a result of this addition.

However, when I looked at the state’s annual juvenile justice report from 2020, I noticed something interesting in the data: school-related juvenile justice complaints plummeted, despite the implementation of Raise the Age.

I requested data from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and downloaded publically available data from both the North Carolina Courts and the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. With data training from my fellowship in the statistical software packages R and RStudio, I analyzed that data, approaching it from multiple directions and visualizing the results. I also used software packages such as tidyverse, janitor and lubridate to clean the data and perform my analysis.

What I found was a trend throughout the state: when schools were largely closed during the pandemic, school-based juvenile justice complaints plummeted in the majority of North Carolina counties. After a decade of school-based complaints making up almost half of total juvenile justice complaints, they plummeted from close to half of the complaints during the 2018-2019 school year to 30 percent of complaints during the shortened 2019-2020 school year.  They fell further during the mostly virtual 2020-2021 school year to just 7 percent of overall complaints.

That was a stunning figure, but it wasn’t the whole story.

The most important lesson I learned from this project was that the data was just a glimpse of the full picture.

I talked to experts who work with the most vulnerable children who often get caught up in the system — children with disabilities and children of color, specifically Black children. 

They shed light on the kind of behavior that generally gets kids caught up in the justice system. School-based complaints tend to be incidents that are minor — things like getting into fights or disrupting class. The presence of School Resource Officers means that these minor incidents get escalated into charges that propel children into the criminal justice system. But when children were not in school, there were fewer opportunities to be more harshly disciplined by the SROs. 

The blip caused by the pandemic did show one thing, which is the possibility of a world where schools did not have a role in the justice system. Experts provided key context, though: this drastic decrease in complaints was not here to stay. In fact, they told me that they were seeing an increased number of children requesting to use their services.

It is likely, they said, that the pandemic would increase disparities that existed before the world shut down in 2020. I went on to investigate the impact of the pandemic on the state’s most vulnerable children, as well as the correlation between literacy and incarceration, after a source pointed it out to me.

I chose to write a fourth story in this series, zeroing in on potential solutions.

Another lesson I learned was that it’s easy to find the problems, but you should also look for solutions — everywhere. 

A colleague at North Carolina Health News had previously published an award-winning series about how countries in Europe handled the opioid epidemic with harm reduction techniques years before they became more common in the United States. I knew to keep my ears peeled while I was on vacation in Italy this past winter for story ideas.

It was on this that I found the inspiration for my last story in this series, examining restorative justice approaches. I learned through talking with Italian friends that the juvenile justice system in Italy incarcerates fewer children than North Carolina does, even though Italy has almost six times the population. I wanted to know why.

The answer lies in a culture that takes community responsibility for crimes committed by youth and the integration of restorative justice practices in its juvenile justice system. After I did some research, I found some groups in North Carolina using similar techniques and practices.

That final story was republished by the Solutions Journalism Network, thus widening the impact of the series by giving it exposure in publications such as Yahoo News and The 74.

The USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism data fellowship was a lesson in data journalism as much as it was a lesson in time management.

I was able to publish my series well before the due date because I was well-organized throughout the fellowship, something that was impressed on me by the Annenberg coach Christian McDonald, and a training session with ProPublica’s Kathleen McGrory.

I did this by:

  • Making a folder in Google Drive specifically devoted to the fellowship project, with different documents outlining my project goals and weekly check-ins. 
  • Scheduling weekly meetings with my manager, to keep her aware of the work I was doing and to brainstorm areas when I felt stuck. It was in a meeting with my editor that she suggested I get my head out of the data and in the field to figure out the context behind the numbers I was crunching.
  • Blocking out time each Friday morning just to work on my project.
  • Organizing the infrastructure for success in October, right after the training. That meant I was thinking about the project regularly throughout the six months leading up to publication.

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