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Judge's View: How schools handle juvenile crime cases

Judge Dale Harris

A recent viral video showed a pretty serious altercation at a local high school.

Naturally, a lot of parents wanted details. Who were the students involved? Was the school taking disciplinary action? Would there be criminal charges filed? We all want our kids to be safe, so an act of violence in a school hits most of us pretty close to home.

Some of those questions, however, cannot be answered without violating laws classifying information about juveniles as nonpublic.

In Minnesota, most of this sort of information is subject to very strict rules limiting disclosure. School records kept on students (called "educational data" in the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act), including disciplinary records, are presumed to be private data on the individual student, meaning only the student and his or her parent can have access to them.

Schools take this responsibility seriously, not just to protect students' privacy, but also because there are potential civil penalties for noncompliance with the statutes.

There are several exceptions contained within this statute, including permission to share information necessary in emergencies, provide data for state reporting requirements, and reinforce the obligations of mandatory reporters to disclose suspected child abuse or neglect.

And schools may share certain information with the juvenile justice system, which includes law enforcement and the judicial branch. When those agencies request such information, the request must include an explanation of why access to the data is necessary to serve the student.

The school is also required to notify the student's parent or guardian of the request before disclosure.

When a case gets into the juvenile justice system, a whole new set of rules apply. In juvenile court, most of the proceedings are not open to the public, and the records from juvenile court are not accessible to the public.

There is a fairly broad exception to this rule when the child is charged with what would be a felony-level offense for an adult, and the child is over age 16. Those hearings are typically open to the public, as are the records pertaining to those charges. There are some other narrow exceptions to the general rule, including allowing information to be disclosed as part of Department of Human Services background checks and pursuant to victims' rights statutes.

But much of what happens in juvenile court is not going to appear in the newspaper.

This emphasis on privacy might seem odd, considering most adult criminal records are open to the public. But juvenile justice is a different system. The purpose of juvenile delinquency laws, written right into the statutes, is twofold: to maintain the integrity of the substantive criminal law and to develop individual responsibility for lawful behavior in ways "that recognize the unique characteristics and needs of children, and that give children access to opportunities to personal and social growth."

In other words, it's about both punishment and rehabilitation. The limits on public access to these records help ensure that a child who successfully learns a lesson from involvement in the juvenile justice system is not unfairly punished later in life.

Judge Dale Harris is a judge in the Sixth Judicial District, working out of the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth. He was born in Two Harbors. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Hermantown with their four children.