Utah legislator is out to ban lockup as teens' potential penalty for bad grades.
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It started in a school bus.
Early in 2006, 13-year-old Tanner Passarella was riding home from his Carbon County middle school when his pants came down. The boy's father says it was another child who pulled them down, but Tanner Passarella was charged with lewdness.
A year later, Tanner Passarella was caught with a pack of gum in his pocket as he left a gas station, and he was charged with theft. The boy was placed on probation. He was required to perform community service. And he was ordered to keep his grades up.
So when the boy's report card came back with no absences but six F's and a D, the Carbon County Attorney's Office issued a summons, and 7th District Juvenile Court Judge Scott Johansen sent the teen to juvenile detention for what would be the first of several periods of incarceration in the juvenile justice system.
"That's really when he went into the system," said the boy's father, Fred Passarella, "because he couldn't [get passing grades]."
School attendance and performance are often included in boilerplate court orders for juvenile offenders. And juvenile justice experts say performance in both categories are good signs for predicting recidivism, although it is rarely the sole basis for incarcerating a juvenile.
But Rep. Christine Watkins, D-Price, says stories like Tanner Passarella's are too common among her constituency, and too often failing marks have been used to take kids out of their homes and place them in juvenile detention centers.
"You start doing this with these kids … and it will create a whole new set of people who will want to defy authority," Watkins said. "I really think demeaning actions or punishment like that is counterproductive."
Last year, the state Legislature passed amendments to Utah's child welfare laws, prohibiting the removal of children based solely on educational neglect and truancy. If Watkins is re-elected to the House in November, she said she plans to champion similar legislation regarding juvenile detention.
The Passarellas are just one of the families in Carbon and Emery counties affected by the issue, Watkins said.
"Detention is pretty serious stuff," she said. "Why can't the state pay for a tutor instead? If we're going to put out money, let's put it toward a good use, not just locking them up."
In a statement, Juvenile Court Administrator Lisa-Michele Church said school attendance and grades are just two factors judges look at as they try to "help youth change negative behaviors and become successful adults."
She continued: "Attending school is a key factor in predicting adult success for these youths, and so judges take it very seriously, but it is part of a mix that also could include case-specific factors such as parenting, substance abuse, violence, law breaking behavior and other factors."
Church added: "It would not be accurate to look at one hearing or one case and try to draw conclusions about how school attendance plays into the judge's decision, because it is always part of a larger continuum of issues."
Rob Butters, the director of the Utah Criminal Justice Center, agrees that school engagement and performance are "major risk factors" for adolescents.
"Failing grades signify a problem," he said. "Kids who are doing what they're supposed to be doing don't typically flunk out of school unless they have a learning disability."
But intermediate penalties such as home detention are always more desirable than placing a child in a secure facility, Butters said, though resources can be limited, especially in rural counties.
"Almost always, locking people up adults or kids does not change their behavior," Butters said.
Tanner Passarella, now 18, has spent 92 days in detention since September 2007, court records show. The teen has spent 43 days in an observation and assessment facility.
"I'm devastated," the father said. "I finally had to go down and see a doctor for anxiety and depression. This just eats at me all the time, and it has for the past five years."
While Tanner Passarella was in state custody, officials determined the boy suffered from a learning disability that should have qualified him to have the assistance of an aide while in school, Passarella and Watkins said.
Since his first offense as a 13-year-old, court records show Tanner Passarella has racked up at least seven misdemeanors falsely reporting an offense and driving without a license, for example and felony counts of destruction of property and leaving the scene of an accident involving injuries.
The father said that while his son had previously been in trouble with the law, getting thrown into the detention system was a tipping point that threw the boy into greater turmoil.
Approximately 18 months ago, the teen was taken from his father's home and placed in foster care, Fred Passarella said. In February, the teen tested positive for spice and was placed in a rehabilitation facility in Salt Lake City.
Fred Passarrella said he's been told the teen should expect to stay there at least until his 19th birthday.
Said Watkins: "They [the juvenile justice system] go to the extreme thinking they're going to help people and I just don't see it being all that helpful. It's like, let's just kick them while they're down. I just don't understand our system sometimes."
A closer look
Judge Scott Johansen appointed in 1992 to the 7th District Juvenile Court, which serves Carbon, Emery and Grand counties has been in the spotlight twice before for taking unusual action with teens.
• In 1997, the Utah Judicial Conduct Commission reprimanded Johansen for "demeaning the judicial office" by slapping a 16-year-old boy during a September 1995 meeting at the Price courthouse. A father had asked Johansen to talk with the teen, who became belligerent. Johansen knocked the boy's hat off his head and slapped his face.
• Last month, Johansen was criticized for ordering a Carbon County mother to lop off her 13-year-old daughter's ponytail as punishment for cutting the hair off a 3-year-old at a McDonald's.
• Johansen told the 13-year-old's mother she could shave 150 hours of community service off the sentence if she cut her daughter's hair in court. The mother has filed a complaint against him.