Falmouth police pioneer 'restorative justice': Students quietly referred to school officials for first-time offenses

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FALMOUTH — When four high school students were caught with alcohol earlier this month near a local country club, police gave them a choice of punishment.

They could either face criminal fines in the county court system, or turn themselves in to Falmouth High School administrators, where their punishment could include community service, substance abuse counseling or riding the bench during sporting events.

All four chose school punishment.

The option is new in Falmouth. It’s a program that was quietly rolled out in September after several years of conversations between police and school administrators. It is intended for students who would otherwise receive summonses on charges of alcohol possession by a minor, and it has the blessing of the Cumberland County district attorney.

To be eligible, students must meet a narrow list of criteria: They must be first-time offenders, they must be cooperative with police, students in possession of illicit drugs need not apply, and neither can drunk drivers.

Although the program doesn’t have a proper name, the principal at Falmouth High School calls it “restorative justice” as opposed to “punitive justice,” an approach that dovetails with an ongoing shift within the school district to steer away from harsh punishments toward teachable moments.

Fewer than 10 students have participated since the program began at the beginning of the school year.

Although a similar program is available to juveniles in South Portland, at least one local police chief thinks the program sends the wrong message.

An anonymous text

It was 11:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 8, when Falmouth police received an anonymous text alerting them to an alleged underage drinking party on Olympic Drive, Lt. John Kilbride said.

Police didn’t have enough probable cause to enter any homes, Kilbride said, but they soon encountered three students outside, one of whom had been drinking and was detained. Later, police stopped a car carrying five students, three of whom had been drinking. The driver was sober.

The four students ranged in age from 16 to 18. Their apprehension were entered into the record-keeping system at the Falmouth Police Department, but they were not formally charged. (There is no detailed public record of the incident. On a dispatch log provided by police, the incident is listed simply as “information.”)

Kilbride said the four students met the criteria to opt for school punishment instead of the court system: they were first-time offenders, they did not possess illicit drugs, and they cooperated.

Due to privacy laws that protect minors, and because charges were not filed against of the teenagers, police did not report the names of the students to anyone, including school officials. Instead, the students were required to turn themselves in.

School officials then asked the students for permission to discuss their cases with police, which completes the circle of communication. If the school doesn’t contact police within a reasonable amount of time, police would have followed up with the students, and would likely have issued include court summonses to them.

The four students in the March 8 incident reported themselves to school officials, Kilbride said Tuesday. Police have discussed the incident with school officials and will soon meet again with the students and their parents to discuss the outcome, which could include community service, sports punishment and/or counseling.

“Good kids make bad decisions,” Kilbride said. “We give them another chance.”

The approach also fosters better relationships between juveniles and police, he said, which could prevent violent responses to police intervention at illegal parties or prevent drunk teenagers from scattering through the countryside on foot or in vehicles.

“If you find yourself in one of these situations and the police roll in, if you’re cooperative, if you’re honest, if you work with police, it may benefit you in the long run,” he said.

Moreover, the program is more than just a slap on the wrist, Kilbride insisted.

“It’s far more severe than them paying a fine and walking away from the court system, or mom and dad paying a fine,” Kilbride said.

Tailored punishment

Gregg Palmer, principal of Falmouth High School, said he doesn’t know the exact number of students who have turned themselves in since September, but he estimated it is fewer than 10 students in three or more incidents.

The program was never announced to students; instead, it was quietly rolled out in September when police first encountered a situation that met the criteria.

The program was developed between the school and police over the course of several years. Police initiated the conversation. There wasn’t any particular event that was the impetus for the program. Nor is it the result of a cumulative effect, Palmer said.

“There’s no epidemic going on,” he said. “Police appropriately said, ‘Let’s work together to have the greatest effect on kids who’ve made a mistake.'”

“It was an attempt to give everyone more tools to deal with situations in ways that we feel would cause the most reflection and get students to positively work through the issues,” he said. “For some kids, a (court) summons is going to do that, because it can be a serious situation and kids take that seriously. Other times, the school is so much a part of their lives that we can work with them and have a productive conversation.”

A distinction is made between drugs and alcohol because “alcohol is legal in our society,” Palmer said.

Palmer hesitated to use the word “punishment,” but as a consequence of the incidents, students are asked to devise “contracts” with input from school administrators, police and parents.

There is no template for a contract, he said. Options might include researching current studies on alcohol abuse and reporting on what they’ve learned. Community service, “in-school restrictions or in-school suspensions,” or substance abuse counseling might also be considered.

Ideally, each contract has four to six items that students must commit to, Palmer said. Students, parents and school administrators must “reach a contract that everybody feels is appropriate” in order to avoid a court summons.

Palmer said the School Board was made aware of the program during early its early stages, and has endorsed similar approaches to discipline within the school.

“We’re a school, so ultimately we’re about education,” he said. “We do not want to have a disciplinary system that’s a ‘bad-dog system,’ where somebody does something and they get an immediate punishment and there’s no discussion. … That kind of system doesn’t give much of a chance for growth and real change.”

In Palmer’s estimation, the program has been a success.

“Based on what we’ve seen,” he said, “it is a great idea.”

Prosecutor’s endorsement

Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson is unequivocal in her endorsement of the program.

“I think it’s a fabulous idea,” she said Tuesday. “I think it’s way better than what can be accomplished in the criminal justice system.”

Anderson said she was involved in discussions with Falmouth police and favors the program, partly because of its narrow criteria for eligibility, but mostly because she thinks it will be more effective at reducing recidivism, something that Palmer and Kilbride also strongly believe.

The court system can miss an opportunity to impart the dangers of alcohol, she said. A custom tailored punishment offers time for personal reflection.

“Sticking a fine on them, I just don’t know how meaningful that is. This takes a lot more work,” Anderson said.

In South Portland, police take a similar approach, Lt. Frank Clark said. Although there isn’t a formal program between police and the high school, the department works with kids through a juvenile justice system to provide counseling and community service as an alternative to court fines.

In nearby Cape Elizabeth, however, Chief Neil Williams isn’t a believer.

“My personal opinion is you’re sending the wrong message,” he said of off-the-books punishments.

As a general rule, Cape Elizabeth police write court summonses for first-time juvenile offenders, Williams said, because teenagers are “generally handled informally anyway” by the court.

Cape Elizabeth police generally advise students to inform their school administrators of their misdeeds, because in such a small community, the word will likely reach the school anyway – not through police, but through the rumor mill, Williams said.

When asked whether the program in Falmouth sends the wrong message to teenagers, Kilbride said “time will tell.”

“This is the first year. If we see repeat offenders down the road, we’ll have to re-evaluate the program, but right now we haven’t,” he said. “Punishment is issued to them. They’re not just walking away.”

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.