Attacking a Good Program in South Georgia

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I was appalled when I read a recent article in the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph titled “Report blasts Bibb County School System’s Handling of Student Discipline.”

The story was in response to a report published by Safe Havens International that, in part, criticizes the recent agreement between the juvenile court, police and the local school system to reduce the referral of certain misdemeanor offenses to the juvenile court and focus more on meaningful intervention that is long lasting according to the research.

The Safe Havens report recommends that the school system withdraw from the agreement.

What’s playing out in south Georgia now has no doubt happened in many communities across the country where a group — at best acting out of ignorance or at worse out of self-interest — tries to wreck good public policy that is designed to help kids and society.

But let’s take a closer look at who is behind this report. Safe Havens International is led in part by the former chief of the Bibb County schools campus police Michael Dorn, a chief who, during his tenure, increased referral of students to the court system. This is the same policy now under attack across the country for its zero intelligence, foolishness and impracticality.

Now, let’s break down Mr. Dorn’s reasons for recommending the withdrawal of the agreement — an approach now touted as a best practice in promoting safer schools and increasing graduation rates. First, he claims that the agreement “will drive underreporting of school crime even higher than the current dangerous level and that acts of violence and other negative outcomes will occur in the district as a result of this approach.”

You gotta be kidding Mr. Dorn! If it’s true that the school system is not adequately reporting school crime, then recommend solutions that directly impact the problem.

The agreement is limited to asking the question: Is this an offense that needs to be handled by the juvenile court? The matter must still be reported to the state department of education. That’s the real issue. In my business we call Mr. Dorn’s response “throwing the baby out with the bath water” or “using a hammer to kill a fly!”

According to the Telegraph article, the report recommended withdrawal from the agreement because it “would basically strip victims of the rights they would have if a crime were committed anywhere outside public school.”

This reason is legally and systemically flawed beyond all reason. This statement assumes that the only way to restore a victim is to arrest the student and send them to court. So what did we do before police were placed on campus and two students got into a fight? We didn’t arrest them and we definitely didn’t send them to court. We sent them to the office, called their parents, and disciplined them at school and hoped the parents did the same at home.

We need to get back to this way of handling these infractions. It will not happen unless we get serious in our responses that involve the parents in the disciplinary process — that means INTERVENTION in the home or require parents to come to school — not kick the student out and ignore the underlying reasons for why the student got into trouble at school.

I am most appalled by the false, inaccurate, and inflammatory description of the agreement and its purpose. The report argues that the agreement places the interests of the offending student over those of the victim. It cites an example not even contemplated under the agreement stating, “that a police officer who witnesses a student being badly beaten at school by three other students would not be able to arrest the perpetrators on the spot under the agreement. Parents would be unable to press charges on behalf of a child who was beaten up by gang members with criminal records, as long as it happened at school.”

A student “badly beaten” is not within the scope of the agreement! This statement either reflects Mr. Dorn’s failure to understand the agreement — assuming he read it — or a state of mind to sabotage the agreement.  After all, it does call into question his own policies when he was the chief of school police.

But let’s not stop there — “badly beaten” by “three students.” This is not a misdemeanor. This is most likely a felony aggravated assault or worse. If “badly beaten” caused a temporary loss of consciousness, it is an aggravated battery. No matter, both constitute a serious felony under our juvenile code and could result in long term secure detention — a minimum of one year or a maximum of five.

Ok — now it gets to a point of insanity — “gang members.” Does anyone really believe the agreement prohibits the school resource officer from arresting a student for gang related activities — another serious felony carrying with it up to five years?

For Mr. Dorn’s information, two of Macon’s finest school resource officers attended annual training of the Clayton County School Resource Officers, which included the application of the Clayton County agreement for which Bibb County’s agreement was used as a model. They learned that the examples your report cited are not on the table–police may arrest student offenders described in your report.

The focus of the agreement is to bring common sense to the handling of student misconduct and not arrest students for nonviolent offenses such as disorderly conduct and disrupting public school or for school fights or other offenses appropriate for school discipline and intervention.

During this training, the Bibb school officers heard school resource officers testify about their interventions in lieu of arrests.

One officer at Forest Park High School, for example, described a female student who came to school and seriously disrupted a classroom. She disrupted it so much that she threatened the teacher. She had to be removed from the class.

The officer took her into protective custody and escorted her to the office. The officer, using crisis intervention strategies, questioned the young lady — and I mean questioned her with an eye to figure out why this student would act so horribly.

It turned out she was being sexually abused at home on a weekly basis by her mother’s live-in boyfriend. Instead of arresting her, she was placed in the custody of the Department of Family and Children Services and the boyfriend arrested. This young lady was confused and angry –she was lashing out.

Under Mr. Dorn’s approach, she would have been arrested, transported in a patrol car, maybe detained in an RYDC, and emotionally abused all over again — by a system operating out of ignorance, apathy or self-interest.

What does it hurt to sometimes slow down and ask why? It just may save a child and catch a pedophile! Now that’s getting tough on crime!

The Bibb County juvenile judges, school system, and police should be applauded, not criticized, for their courage to do what is in the best interest of all students.

Be careful Mr. Dorn what you recommend — you may be condemning kids to a living hell — if you care that is?

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