When Teresa Shirley learned that her 17-year-old daughter had come to blows with a female classmate at North Gaston High School last fall, she knew bad judgment was probably to blame.
But after Cydney Shirley was charged with disorderly conduct, her mother was shocked to hear that she had been handcuffed and locked in the back of a police car, then photographed and held at the Gaston County Jail amid suspects charged with much more serious crimes. Hours later, an account of the school fight and the resulting criminal charges were plastered all over local news websites. And within days, the 17-year-old’s mugshot was featured on the cover of The Slammer — a convenience store tabloid that fills its pages with jailhouse photos of the accused.
In the blink of an eye, a lunchtime scuffle that the two girls involved had broken up themselves had changed Cydney’s life. A teenager who still wasn’t old enough to vote, get married or enter the military was being thrown to the wolves via public record and her standing as an “adult” in the eyes of the legal system.
“She’s always been a great kid and been active and involved with the community,” said Teresa Shirley. “Kids get into arguments and make mistakes. But it was like a domino effect.
“You can see where this incident just got blown totally out of proportion.”
The student who Cydney fought with was also charged with disorderly conduct, though she was 18.
The experience was traumatizing for the close-knit Shirley family. But it was also a learning experience that led them to get involved with a statewide push by Action for Children, a nonprofit child advocacy organization.
The North Carolina agency has been fighting for years to increase the age at which teenagers can be tried as adults. North Carolina and New York are the only two states where that burden begins at 16. Other states set the age at 17, though the vast majority use 18 as the benchmark.
North Carolina has harsh stance
North Carolina judges now have the authority to require teenagers as young as 13 to be tried as adults in the event of serious felony charges, such as murder, rape and other violent crimes. But Action for Children wants to eliminate the potential for situations such as what occurred with Cydney Shirley.
“She’s not your typical, disadvantaged, at-risk kid, but she got swept into the system anyway,” said Brandy Bynum, policy and outreach director for Action for Children. “This is not what we want for any child, even those who are at-risk. But because of this archaic law in our state, the likelihood of it happening is much higher than it should be.”
The nonprofit’s ‘Raise the Age’ legislation is being considered in judiciary subcommittees via a pair of bills in the N.C. House and Senate. Sen. Jim Forrester, R-Gaston, is among the local advocates, and with strong bipartisan support, Bynum believes they have a better chance of getting the law changed this year than ever before.
In 2009, the General Assembly established a task force of judges, law enforcement officers, teachers and other experts to study the impact of North Carolina’s current law. The group’s final report found extensive benefits to raising the age to 18. An independent agency, the Vera Institute, also conducted a cost-benefit analysis that found changing the law could save the state $50 million a year in judicial system expenses.
Studies have shown that the part of the human brain that controls decision-making may not fully form until a person is 18 years or older, Bynum said. Too many children in North Carolina are held to too heavy of a standard when they make bad decisions and are charged with minor crimes, and it often increases their chances of getting caught up in the criminal justice system and making more bad choices, she said.
“We’re talking about 30,000 kids a year that this would impact,” she said. “We need to recognize that these juveniles need more time.”
Bad experience leads to a cause
Teresa Shirley said no adults at the school witnessed the fight. But after administrators heard about it, Cydney Shirley and the other girl were asked to write statements about what had happened. They were charged with disorderly conduct on the basis of what they wrote, though the fight involved no weapons and left neither of them bruised nor bloodied, Shirley said.
Shirley said both girls endured catcalls from other inmates in a holding area after being taken to the local jail.
“They were scared,” she said.
Because she was 16 or older and had been charged, Cydney’s mugshot and home address quickly became public record and was posted on the Gaston County Jail website. News outlets, including The Gazette, picked it up, and eventually so did The Slammer.
“I see people who are never held accountable for what they do, and yet we’re doing this to our kids,” said Shirley. “What is that solving?”
Cydney was suspended for 10 days and attended Warlick School during that period. An assistant district attorney reviewed her case and allowed it to be heard in what’s known as “Teen Court,” in which she was judged by a jury of her peers.
The charge was dropped, and Cydney was allowed to attend conflict resolution classes, write an essay and perform jury duty as her punishment.
“One of the guys on the jury at teen court told her, ‘You’ve had more consequences than anyone I’ve ever seen,’” Shirley said.
Shirley soon learned about Action for Children’s efforts and got in touch with them. She and her daughter are now featured in a 30-second advertisement that advocates the legal change. Cydney also plans to speak before the General Assembly on the issue.
“We want to change this law so no one else has to go through this,” said Shirley. “There are circumstances where children should be tried as an adult. But that should be the exception — not the rule.”
You can reach Michael Barrett at 704-869-1826.
For more information about the Raise the Age legislation being promoted by Action for Children, log on to www.ncchild.org.