Jim Kenyon: How Claremont Should Deal With Boys in Alleged Racial Incident

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Published: 9/27/2017 12:17:27 AM

With so much attention being paid — and appropriately so — on what some believe was the near lynching of an 8-year-old biracial boy by a group of young teens in Claremont, I thought a knowledgeable outsider’s point of view might prove useful.

“Sadly, I wasn’t surprised,” said Heidi Beirich, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit watchdog organization based in Montgomery, Ala., that grew out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Research shows that many hate crimes involve juveniles, said Beirich, an expert on white supremacist and other extremist movements. “Bullying on steroids,” she called it during our recent phone conversation.

Beirich places much of the blame on social media. websites, Facebook and Twitter are “filled with racial images and sewer talk,” which has led to the “normalization of bigotry and hatred” on the internet, she said.

The extremist rhetoric is being absorbed by “children who aren’t sophisticated enough to make sense of it,” she added.

In Claremont, all the teens involved in the Aug. 28 incident, which occurred in the backyard of a decaying apartment building near Barnes Park, were 14 or under. By my math that makes them middle schoolers.

Claremont police have taken heat from social activists for staying mum about the incident, which resulted in the injured boy being flown by helicopter to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center with cuts to his neck. Police Chief Mark Chase maintains that state law prohibits the release of any information about potential criminal matters involving only juveniles.

The case became public when the victim’s family posted pictures of his injuries on Facebook. The family says the boy was taunted with racial slurs and pushed off a picnic table with a rope around his neck. The rope was part of a nearby tire swing.

Last week, the parents of one of the teens called it a “complete backyard accident” that wasn’t racially motivated. In a Newsweek interview, they described it as more of an attempted prank that went badly wrong.

No adults witnessed the incident, police said, which will make it especially difficult to determine which of the two versions is closer to the truth. But considering that an 8-year-old ended up being seriously injured in what was, at best, a “prank,” it’s clear that some form of bullying occurred.

Where’s this case headed?

Beirich, who had read an Associated Press story about the case before we talked, hopes that it’s not destined for the courts.

In alleged hate crimes involving teens — even when the law treats them as adults — Beirich tends to take the long view. “I don’t want young people who are 18 and 19 going to prison,” she said. “If they weren’t white supremacists going in, they will be when they get out.”

The Claremont case seems to call for a restorative justice approach, Beirich told me.

I agree.

Keep the lawyers and judges out of it. Turn the case over to a formal panel of community-minded volunteers who can address what happened, come up with ways to repair the harm and guarantee the young offenders are held accountable.

The public often has the wrong impression of what restorative justice — also known as court diversion — is about, Windsor County State’s Attorney David Cahill said. “It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” he said.

For starters, offenders must acknowledge their wrongdoing. Community service often is a component, as well as restitution. Sitting down with the victim, if willing, can be part of the process too. “It’s also critical to come up with a plan to avoid repeating the behavior,” Cahill said.

“Restorative justice engages victims, offenders, and community members — all those affected by the crime — in an effort to put things right,” states the website for the White River Junction-based Valley Court Diversion Programs.

But in the Claremont case there’s a bit of a problem: On July 1, Sullivan County shut down its youth court diversion program. A $55,000 state grant that had funded the program for the previous 15 months ran out.

After private funding couldn’t be found, Sullivan County officials were unwilling to devote taxpayer money — beyond a $20,000 contribution last year — to keep the program going.

Until this summer, Sullivan County was part of the New Hampshire Juvenile Court Diversion Network, which consists of 16 programs around the state funded by a mix of public and private dollars.

Nationally, community-based alternatives to the court system have been shown to reduce juvenile crime and recidivism. New Hampshire has seen the benefits. The state’s court diversion network works with about 1,400 kids annually. Typically, a case lasts for 4½ months, with an average completion rate of 86 percent over the last five years.

But with Sullivan County’s program having been shuttered doesn’t that rule out the court diversion option in the Claremont case? Not necessarily, said Betsy Houde, coordinator of the state’s juvenile court diversion network. Her suggestion: Valley Court Diversion Programs in White River Junction.

It already handles diversion cases for several Grafton County communities, including Lebanon and Enfield.

I called Regina Rice Barker, Valley Court’s executive director. Not only does Barker have a sterling reputation in juvenile justice circles, she also knows Claremont, where she once worked for Planned Parenthood.

If asked, Rice Barker told me, her staff would help any way it could to keep the Claremont case out of the court system, which is often costly, time-consuming and adversarial.

The offenders would still be held accountable, Rice Barker stressed, but a restorative justice approach “could heal the community by approaching it in a non-punitive way.”

Makes sense to me. Now it’s up to police and prosecutors to make it happen.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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