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Education Reporter

Nosy Questionnaires Relocate to 'JIACs'
'Juvenile Intake Centers' are response to 'Zero Tolerance'

Shelley Gathright
Shelley Gathright
JOHNSON COUNTY, KS -- The concept of "Zero Tolerance" has taken on a new dimension in Kansas and at least two other states with the development of "Juvenile Intake Assessment Centers" (JIAC). These centers administer "problem oriented screening instruments" (nosy questionnaires) that contain nearly 140 questions about a childs personal life, including health, feelings, habits, family relationships, and sexual behavior. (see questions.) Kansas parents are being instructed to take their children to JIACs for even minor infractions committed at school. In Johnson County alone, the plan is to double the number of "assessments" to 6,000 in the year 2000.

While these centers are commonly perceived as primarily for children who get into trouble with the law, some parents claim this is far from the case. "The JIACs were established with the goal of getting police officers back onto the streets quickly following a juvenile arrest," says parent Shelley Gathright, who researched the issue for more than a year. "Rather than processing young offenders at the police station, officers take them directly to a JIAC. What is actually happening, however, is that parents and children are being sent to these centers for minor misbehavior in school, such as talking back, a schoolyard shove in self defense, or fidgeting too much in class.

"Many parents comply because they believe they must," she explains. "They have no idea that their children will be separated from them and grilled for personal information, or that the 29 pages of information gleaned will end up in a government database with a personal electronic folder for each child."

Mrs. Gathright notes that, based on a childs "profile," parents can be coerced into taking "parenting classes" or sending their children to "mental health centers" or both, all at the parents' expense. "I become alarmed," she admits, "when so-called 'Intake Centers' separate parents from children for the purpose of questioning the children, then 'demand,' nicely of course, that parents do as they recommend or be taken to court."

The JIACs were approved by the Kansas Supreme Court in 1995. Responsibility for their operation was transferred to the Kansas Juvenile Justice Authority on July 1, 1997. Children are typically referred to the centers in one of two ways: (1) through an arrest or (2) through a report or referral from a school in response to an actual or perceived threat or "suspected" misdemeanor or felony, including incidents as petty as taking another childs french fries or having a "spat" with another child. Referrals to JIACs have been automatic for behavior-related suspensions and for many reports involving a School Resource (law enforcement) Officer (SRO).

This shift from the school district to the juvenile justice system for disciplinary measures is of particular concern to many parents. " 'Zero tolerance' now means that nearly any offense merits the involvement of the JIACs when most minor incidents could easily be resolved at the school district level," observes Mrs. Gathright.

She points out that, under Kansas law, school authorities have access to information gathered at the JIACs while parents do not. "If they questioned these kids at school, FERPA restrictions would apply. Since it is happening off school property and under the jurisdictin of the justice system, FERPA does not apply, which conveniently allows the state to get around court decisions favoring parents' rights, such as the one in Texas last May."

(She referred to Lisa T. et al. v. San Antonio Independent School District et al., the Texas Justice Foundations victory for the right of parents to exempt their children from nosy school questionnaires and psychological surveys, as reported in Education Reporter, June 1999. -- Ed.)

"The bottom line," Gathright insists, "is that kids are being profiled, labeled, and tracked, and that these centers are the leading edge of government means to circumvent school and family privacy laws."

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