Almost every time a Biddeford youth is sent to the Long Creek Youth Development Center, Heidi O’Leary hears about it and knows some of the back story that led to the incarceration.

As director of special education at the Biddeford School Department, O’Leary has seen young people tangle with the school disciplinary system, eventually get suspended and sometimes expelled before the criminal justice system decides they need to be incarcerated.

O’Leary and a number of like-minded Biddeford civic leaders are hosting a community forum Wednesday to brainstorm techniques to intervene early on, to find alternative ways of holding students accountable so that they stay in school and out of trouble and ultimately out of jail.

“When you have a kid in trouble, what is the next step and how do we keep them from going down that path? How do we work together as a community to develop programs so kids are interested in staying in school?” O’Leary said in explaining “Graduation not Incarceration,” a meeting that seeks to tap the community’s support systems to avert whenever possible a student’s disconnection from school.

RESTORATIVE JUSTICE

One of the underpinnings of the effort is the restorative justice approach to dealing with juvenile offenders, which has been steadily growing in popularity in Maine and is now finding a foothold in schools as well as in the criminal justice system.

“The concept is one of meaningful accountability, which is different than a punitive justice system,” said Patty Kimball, executive director of the Restorative Justice Institute of Maine. “Acknowledgment of the harm done is really key, of the people that were harmed, which is not something our traditional justice system takes into account, and how do you make things right.”

The nonprofit institute formed two years ago and has seen restorative justice programs blossom in the midcoast, in Oxford County, in the Waterville area and in Lewiston. Understanding who is harmed by a youth’s behavior and finding ways to perform relevant restitution are essential in cultivating a sense of being a responsible citizen, much more effective than punishment alone, Kimball said.

In a school setting, that may mean helping a disruptive student understand the impact on fellow students, on school culture and on relatives who may be called on to deal with the youth, she said. It also requires keeping that student engaged and integrated in the school community, as opposed to ostracized and isolated when he is kicked out of school.

In 2013, there were 15 kids from Biddeford who were incarcerated at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, more than all but the most populous cities in southern Maine, O’Leary said.

O’Leary and other school officials met recently with some of the youths at Long Creek. Often their spiral into trouble started with early experimentation with drugs and alcohol, and was marked by dozens of behavioral conflicts with staff. On the outside, there was trouble with the law, and probation and eventually, incarceration.

Some said being in Long Creek isn’t too bad. It’s a warm bed, three square meals and no abuse, she said.

Maine already has a national reputation for diverting the vast majority of juvenile offenders away from the criminal justice system. But advocates say that diversion can be done more effectively to improve the chances the child won’t get in worse trouble.

SHARING LESSONS

The Biddeford effort also is drawing lessons from nearby Saco and Old Orchard Beach, where community leaders formed a Juvenile Community Review Board two years ago. That grew out of an effort to increase graduation and decrease suspensions and expulsions.

Members of the board include mental health professionals, the Department of Health and Human Services, prosecutors, police, school officials and community members – a recognition that students at risk typically have a number of challenges contributing to their delinquency.

“Restorative justice is the easiest way to hit all those marks and to the highest degree,” said Maine State Police Sgt. Jonathan Shapiro, a member of the board who has been advocating for widespread use of the restorative justice model. “It’s not a panacea. It’s one way of dealing with disciplinary issues or wrongdoing.”

One obvious consequence of students being suspended for behavior problems is that they tend to fall behind and soon are at risk of failing and of dropping out. And high school dropouts are at much higher risk of ending up in jail and prison, Shapiro said.

The forum will be at 3 p.m. Wednesday at the Biddeford High School Library and is open to the public.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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Twitter: @Mainehenchman