Rural juvenile service departments in Northern Nevada have experienced a gradual increase in referrals for disruptive behaviors since the onset of the pandemic. Now, they’re facing a great challenge identifying help for the at-risk teens coming through their doors without adequate local access to mental health resources, according to a recent analysis by the Nevada Appeal.
An examination of charges for which youth commonly are referred to Carson City, Lyon and Douglas juvenile services prior to COVID-19 has shown a mounting need for direct contact with specialists or programs within their areas with shifting school culture. This analysis focuses on drug and alcohol referrals, violent or weapon offenses and disturbance of school before the pandemic impacted these three school districts.
Probation officers working within each county department helped to give context to the possible trends from the past few years and provided insight on the necessity for more mental health or social services in Northern Nevada’s rural communities. The following information is considered a snapshot from Carson City, Lyon and Douglas counties.
Carson City Sheriff Ken Furlong long has believed that a community’s schools are safest when youth remain in the learning environment. Any withdrawal potentially leads children or young adults down a dangerous path, he told the Appeal. The majority of teen arrests in Carson that occur “book in and virtually book out” on a daily basis. Fewer, more extreme cases could stay long-term in the Murphy-Bernardini Regional Juvenile Detention Center due to violent offenses, he said.
“If you were to ask me, with COVID, the social unrest (among youth) could have an impact because COVID was in 2020 and kids were sent home and recovering,” Furlong said. “I would suggest for 2023, we could see a decline, but the school year is just starting.”
In a request to examine how many referrals were occurring in recent years, Carson City Juvenile Services (CCJS) staff members found for 2015, total referrals for the department for drug and alcohol, violent or weapon offenses and disturbance of school came out to 811.
This gradually went down year by year through 2020 once schools were closed due to COVID-19. The total was reduced to 349 that year, but since then, annual totals increased again. Totals were 521 for 2021, 713 in 2022 and, as of Oct. 4, 2023, 522, with drug and alcohol referrals, including possession of marijuana.
Disturbance of school referrals were at their lowest for Carson schools at 10 in 2020 with the pandemic when schools closed. They climbed to 85 in 2022 and now are up to 111 as of Oct. 4.
Jesse Gutierrez, CCJS senior probation officer, said students who get caught for drugs or vaping say the substances are easily accessible and are drawn to their different scents. To educate them about the dangers of substance abuse, CCJS outreach specialist Michelle Entz has offered parent and youth classes focusing on vaping.
“They definitely think with the legalization, the ease of access, the normalcy, they’re using it in the bathroom, down the hall, it’s just easy access,” Gutierrez said. “We’re seeing that steadily with the THC (cannabis). Unfortunately, our youth are suffering from that. It smells good. It doesn’t smell like marijuana anymore. It can be different flavors.”
The majority of CCJS receives its referrals from Carson High School for disturbance of school. Staff members, including school resource officers assigned to the campus, are regularly working with the Carson City School District as intervention measures to keep youth in school and reduce its chronic absenteeism rates.
“I know (the administrators) try not to suspend or expel kids when they do have a fight or drug paraphernalia … where we’ll work with them or set up a class to reduce the drug suspension,” he said. “So I wouldn’t necessarily say an offense led to a reduction in absenteeism because they were expelled by the school and because I know the school’s already trying to handle all that in house and then sending them to us.”
In looking at the data, what truly reflects how many youth are committing an offense often is difficult to capture.
Deputy Chief Linda Lawlor said referrals might mean a citation versus an arrest in some cases. The data also could point to repeat offenders, but the department’s software makes it hard to differentiate between charges or cases.
“(A juvenile) might have possession of a vape but they might also have marijuana on them and paraphernalia, so they might actually end up with three offenses that counts as three referrals,” she said.
Chief Juvenile Services Ali Banister, Lawlor and Gutierrez said they hope to see decreases in their data long-term as families adjust after experiencing the pandemic’s impacts on children’s mental, social and academic behaviors.
“It’s difficult for a lot of them because they’ve only known one peer group their entire life, and that’s one of the reasons they’re with us today,” Banister said.
Douglas County Juvenile Services Chief Probation Officer Tammy Morris has worked in her department since 2002. Morris considers Douglas “pretty fortunate” to be stable compared to others when it comes to addressing teens’ and families’ needs.
“I think we do a great job at addressing these kids and these families to try to make a difference … and to try to get these kids in a good spot,” she said.
Drug and alcohol referrals increased in Douglas County with the pandemic, records indicated. From 68 per 43 juveniles in 2017 going up to 106 per 66 juveniles in 2020, some youth came to the department for multiple citations such as possession of marijuana or paraphernalia or dangerous drugs. This year, as of October, the department has recorded an equal amount of drug and alcohol referrals at 68 for 40 juveniles.
Violent offenses generally decreased until COVID, although they saw a spike at 99 referrals in 2022 with 46 batteries. In October, it has seen 47 referrals for 43 juveniles. Overall, DCJS’ violent offenses have ranged from battery, threats, assault, sexual assault and an act of terrorism, among disturbance of school.
Morris noted in pulling the data that Douglas was seeing more possession of weapons charges, such as a firearm. Weapon offenses held steady, with possession of a dangerous weapon, grand larceny or battery with a deadly weapon.
“I think there was a struggle because our truancies were up once (students) were supposed to be back in school and got out of the habit of being out of school and there was more resistance to attending,” she said.
In tracking truancies, Morris said there was a decrease in citations in 2020 — dropping to 43 offenses among 39 juveniles from 114 offenses among 114 juveniles. This quickly rose to 173 offenses to 166 juveniles once schools were back in session full-time again in 2021.
“I wonder if it is because the kids were not going to school and then didn’t want to, or if parents were keeping them home and not excusing them, or what, but it was interesting,” Morris said.
Lyon County Juvenile Services has seen a 35% increase in referrals overall in the past year, according to Chief Eric Smith, and like others, it’s hard to nail down the jump to any one justification.
Substance-based referrals have risen by 76% for possession of paraphernalia, alcohol-related offenses and substance abuse or possession. Violent offenses, including assault, battery and stalking, are up by 36%.
Weapons charges, perhaps the most troubling to see youth taken into custody for, have seen a 500% increase, Smith said, but he takes caution in using that figure.
“We’ve never seen this many weapons taken off kids in Lyon County,” Smith said.
Thirteen youth were charged with possessing a dangerous weapon during a 10-month period. A dangerous weapon includes but is not limited to a knife, taser, firearm or brass knuckles, he said. In the previous year, nine weapons were confiscated from students in a 12-year period.
“In April, we took three or four kids in custody for firearms — not knives. The possession of weapons can be inflated,” he said. “That can mean a 1-inch folding Swiss Army knife.”
Smith said Lyon’s probation officers typically try not to get involved in the decision regarding the discipline of a student within a school. Most leave it to the judgment of the school administrators and families to do decide what is best. But in conversations about behaviors, he attributed social media challenges as some of the justifications students provide for adapting any new social norms and the difficulty in mitigating unhealthy patterns. Smith said generational habits and administrative or law enforcement’s responses to teens’ behaviors might come into conflict.
“Every week, it seems like there’s a new TikTok challenge,” he said. “I know the school administrators are definitely trying to mitigate that behavior. It almost seems like the new norm from the good and bad behavior. As probation officers, we have search and seizure, and what the kids record versus what we did as children — these kids leave evidence that can be used in trials and it gets posted (on social media sites). It’s quite interesting.”
Hope for youth ‘playing catch-up’
Staff members from each county agreed there are too few mental health resources available and not enough local access to psychiatric help for the teens coming through their doors this year.
“It’s such a broad topic,” Smith said. “When we talk about the dynamics of children not being in school, you have everything from starting in an abusive family to substance abuse and criminal behaviors, and it’s so broad.”
Morris said she felt Douglas was pretty fortunate despite families having their struggles in communities such as Gardnerville or Minden but recognized to get children or adolescents real help, most have to drive beyond Carson City to Washoe County to see a counselor or for other behavioral or mental health services.
“We don’t have the local treatment,” she said. “They can have their drug and alcohol counseling. That’s here, but if you need psychiatric counseling, you have to go to Reno.”
Occasionally, having the parents recognize there might be a problem with their student’s behavior or habits can be a problem and is like “playing catch-up,” Gutierrez said. Generally, most want to see their child is receiving the help they need to get back on the right path mentally and academically for success.
Gutierrez teaches a class for parents mandated by the courts. Lawlor said he often finds their demeanor about the training changed by the end.
“They’re resistant because they think they already know it all, but by the end, they’re really gracious and they’ve gotten a lot out of it and we get positive feedback,” she said.
Gutierrez said most parents and teens want to help avoid having any legal or judicial involvement in their life.
“It’s rare that we have a parent that really pushes back and doesn’t care about their youth,” he said. “And those parents want to have the police or court involvement out of their life. And I think when we get involved as far as the absenteeism goes, we’re the biggest support probably for the school to say if the kid’s not going to school, we’re taking them ourselves.”
For any staff member in a Juvenile Services department involved, the frustration often comes seeing minors disciplined or hospitalized if they’re not counseled early, Lawlor said.
“It can be very frustrating on our end when we see potential in all the kids we work with and we try to get them to see what their decisions are leading them down,” Lawlor said. “We’ve seen other kids don’t make that change and they head right into prison. It’s hard to change that way of thinking and they’ve lived a certain lifestyle and don’t want to change that.”