‘Gangs, guns and naked pictures.’ Lexington focuses on what lands students in court.

Fayette Schools' Safety Advisory Council focuses on juvenile justice

Heather Matics, assistant county attorney for Fayette Co., discusses how her office tries to always work in the best interest of the juvenile. Video by Matt Goins
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Heather Matics, assistant county attorney for Fayette Co., discusses how her office tries to always work in the best interest of the juvenile. Video by Matt Goins

The most common issues in Lexington’s juvenile court that affect schools are “gangs, guns and naked pictures,” Heather Matics, Assistant Fayette County Attorney recently told advisory council members trying to fix school violence.

Fayette Superintendent Manny Caulk is digging deep to find the root causes of school violence as he brings various experts before the District Safety Advisory Council that’s going to make recommendations to state lawmakers as part of a comprehensive approach to safe schools.

Fayette County Schools have been dealing with threats and gun incidents that have resulted in criminal charges in the last few weeks in the aftermath of school shootings in Western Kentucky and Florida, but crimes having an effect on schools and students are occurring year round, officials said.

Juvenile crime and student mental health are among the issues being discussed by the council. In addition, a PTA roundtable meeting at Central Office has discussed home gun safety.

In 2017, the Fayette County Attorney’s Office prosecuted at least 32 juveniles who met the criteria of a gang member under state law and an additional 38 juveniles with gang associations, which means they claimed membership at the time of arrest, had gang clothing or paraphernalia, used gang hand signs, or had frequent contact or were co-defendants of a gang member. All of the juveniles charged were public schools students, Matics said.

There is a particular youth gang in Lexington that steals cars, Matics said. A lot of times they don’t have a driver’s license, cars are wrecked and people are injured or juveniles die, Matics said. Gang members aren’t usually put in diversion programs that avoid court, they are put on probation with stricter requirements, officials said.

However, Matics said one of the things that officials have noticed in Fayette County is that the recommendations for a child with no court history don’t seem appropriate for the seriousness of the crime. There have been juveniles accused of homicides who have no criminal history, she said.

Children who bring weapons onto school property may not have any prior criminal history, and in some of those cases a screening tool will recommend that the child be released.

“That can cause a feeling of panic in the hearts and heads of administrators and law enforcement,” Matics said. In that case, the officer can request detention and the prosecutor can ask the judge to detain the child. Detaining a child results in a quick court appearance so prosecutors can make arrangements to safely supervise them in the community if they are going to be released.

In 2017, there were 75 juveniles charged countywide with a total of 150 gun-related offenses in which guns were allegedly used in commission of the crime. In some cases, the same offense had several co-defendants. In other cases, the same juvenile committed multiple offenses. Of the 75 juveniles charged with committing gun-related offenses, 44 percent met the legal criteria as a gang member or were gang associates.

They were all public school students but not all the crimes were committed on school campuses. In 2017, six of the 75 juveniles were Fayette students charged when a gun was found in their possession on school property.

Possession, transmission and manufacturing of child pornography is also a growing problem among students, Matics said.

“If your 11-year-old daughter takes a picture of herself that is sexually explicit and texts it to her boyfriend, she has in fact manufactured child pornography. And if you are going to charge the boys for receiving and possessing, a lot of our judges believe that the person on the other end if it was voluntarily done should also face charges,” Matics said.

But in some of the cases juveniles have been victimized: Matics told the council that images are sometimes distributed without the consent of the individual depicted and images are sometimes used as blackmail for sexual favors. School law enforcement can’t always tell where the photos have been taken and Lexington police might have to be involved. If parents are afraid to talk to their children about the problem, educators may need to step in, Matics said. Even if it’s a consensual exchange between two teens, Matics said, “I have no guarantee that picture doesn’t end up on the world wide web ... for some perverted individual placing our child at risk.”

In 2017, three juveniles were charged with soliciting other juveniles to send them sexually explicit photos electronically. Two additional juveniles were charged with possessing child pornography and one of them was charged with distributing pornography as well. Two juveniles were charged with sexual assault against another child from school, but not in the school setting.

The number of offenses involving sexually explicit images of juveniles brought to court is not an accurate depiction of the frequency of the conduct, or its effect on students, Matics said. Sometimes, the conduct is handled administratively through the school disciplinary system. School law enforcement personnel may choose to consult with the Fayette County Attorney’s Office during their investigation to assist them in determining the most appropriate route for addressing the conduct.

Fayette County Family Court Judge Elizabeth “Libby” Green Messer, a former prosecutor, said a trend that began a few years ago was an attempt to end the “school to prison pipeline” by giving kids alternatives so that they wouldn’t need to be locked up.”

Messer told the council that Kentucky once ranked 4th in the nation for the highest number of incarcerated juveniles because kids were getting put in jail for crimes such as truancy and probation violations for minor offenses.

Matics and Messer want Fayette County to have more evening reporting centers where kids in criminal trouble have to report after school. These would have tutoring, treatment and food. They want a mentoring program so that more adults living in a troubled student’s ZIP Code work with them as advocates. They are also concerned that there can be time lapses between when an offense occurs and a resolution is reached.

There is a need for more semi-secure facilities in Fayette County for kids who don’t need to be lodged in a jail but need a safe place with resources, officials said. That facility could make sure that kids are driven to school every day. For now, “if I have to put a 15-year-old girl in jail to keep her from continuing to go back to the motor inn and trade herself for drugs, I’m going to choose jail for a couple of nights,” Messer said.

“So we’re all floundering and I think that leads into school safety issues,” said Messer. “Those kids are right back in your schools because,” they are waiting for the court process to move before they see the consequence of their actions or get any true intervention.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears

Here is a breakdown of some specific juvenile offenses prosecuted in 2017 by the Fayette County Attorney’s Office.

In school:

1 Unlawful Possession of a Weapon on School Property

5 Unlawful Possession of a Weapon on School Property and Carrying a Concealed Deadly Weapon

Outside of school:

1 Second Degree Wanton Endangerment

1 Terroristic Threatening

2 Facilitation to First Degree Robbery

2 First Degree Assault (shootings)

2 Fraudulent Firearm Transaction

2 Kidnapping

4 First Degree Wanton Endangerment

5 Murder

5 Theft by Unlawful Taking (Firearm)

9 First Degree Burglary

15 Carrying a Concealed Deadly Weapon

26 Receiving Stolen Property Firearm

32 First Degree Robbery

38 Possession of a Handgun by a Minor

Child pornography charges:

3 Prohibited Use of an Electronic Communication System to Procure a Minor for Sexual Performance

3 Distribution and/or Possession of Child Pornography

2 sexual assault (against another child from school, but not in the school setting)