Reese’s experience raises broader questions about what information is shared between MMSD and the Dane County Juvenile Court when it comes to youth in their care. While the district insists it was an isolated incident, juvenile court staff, like Smedema and her supervisor, Suzanne Stute, said collecting statements from school staff is a routine part of their work.
The case also illuminates communication issues and a lack of standardized procedures between MMSD and Dane County Juvenile Court employees. Such communication happens on an ad-hoc basis and varies from school-to-school, largely unmonitored by the district’s central office. A task force of both groups of employees has been working to correct this, and Madison schools Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham proposed adding $120,000 to next year’s budget to establish an office dedicated to court-involved and other “at-risk” youth.
After spending over a week in the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center, Reese’s son was ready to go.
“I want to go home,” he wailed as the court commissioner ruled to extend his stay for the second time, in an audio recording of a custody hearing reviewed by the Cap Times. The Cap Times is not identifying the student by name because juvenile court records are sealed.
The county’s Juvenile Court uses custody hearings to determine the best environment for a child before a delinquency hearing or trial. Custody hearings usually happen within 24 hours of a child’s apprehension by authorities. Options typically include secure detention, non-secure shelter, or returning home with a parent or other stable adult. If a child is not released after the initial hearing, they can request follow-up hearings. Custody hearings are not used to determine a child’s innocence or guilt when accused of a delinquent act.
Shortly before the commissioner made his decision in late February, the student’s public defender argued that he’d been doing well in his classes during detention, and both parents were committed to helping him stay in school and out of trouble.
Despite the student’s and his parents’ request for monitored release, Assistant District Attorney Andrew Miller and Melissa Tanner, a Dane County social worker assigned to the student, did not think it was the best option. Along with concerns about the student running away again, Tanner and Miller spoke about their perception of his experience at West.
When asked by the court commissioner whether or not they believed the student should be released from custody that day, both mentioned Pryor’s letter as a reason to think twice.
“I haven’t gotten confirmation about how West would feel about him coming back, but we do have this letter that was submitted to the court about their concern,” Tanner told the court.
“I strongly believe that if he stays at West or any of the large MMSD schools, his behavior will not change and he will progress to even more serious behaviors,” said Miller, reading a line from Pryor’s letter to the court.
“Returning (to West) is not a sure thing, it is by no means certain,” Miller told the commissioner.
An impressive piece of local journalism…