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Atlanta Forum Set on Alternatives to Alternative Schools

A year-long research and reporting project on equity in education in Georgia schools will frame an upcoming public discussion for professionals and families in Atlanta.

“Research has found children of color, poor children and children with learning disabilities tend to be disciplined more harshly in public schools,” said Chandra Thomas Whitfield, host of the forum. That’s one of her findings at the end of a year of her work as a Soros Justice Fellow.

The panelists -- most of whom she has interviewed in her years of work as a journalist -- will discuss this harsher punishment of certain children, then what happens when students are put into so-called alternative schools. She defines those as schools where children have been put out of a traditional setting for a discipline or academic problem. She points out that Georgia lacks mandated specialized criteria for those schools.

“One school actually met in a mall food court in the morning,” she related, “afterwards they were given ‘community service,’ which was cleaning offices.”

Clayton County, Ga., decided to close alternative schooling and send troublesome children home with a laptop, assignments and instructions to Skype a teacher with questions, to be supplemented with meetings about once a week.

“The reality is, a lot of schools that these kids are being sent to,” said Whitfield, “are dropout factories. They are low-performing and the students are not necessarily being challenged or having their needs addressed.”

African-American students were consistently more than three times more likely to receive an OSS [out-of-school suspension] than students of other racial classifications, according to a 2011 report from the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, which drew on seven years of Georgia Department of Education data. “OSS rates and graduation rates are negatively correlated,” it adds. That is, the higher a school’s OSS rate, the fewer kids graduate.

“In this 21st century, a young person who does not obtain at least a quality high school education will have enormous difficulties in becoming gainfully employed and potentially may be more susceptible to engaging in unlawful behavior,” the report argued.

As for alternative ideas, “several of the people that I interviewed pointed to what is called restorative practices and positive behavioral interventions and supports.” The first involves having offenders repair and apologize for the harm they’ve caused to victims. The second, PBIS, is a way of setting an atmosphere in a school that expects and rewards students’ responsibility to and respect for each other.

Whitfield plans her event as a “forum for people in the [education] industry to talk about their issues and concerns but also be a resource for the community and for parents, to know what they should do, what they need to know if their child is sent to alternative school.”

Panelists include Marlyn Tillman, founder of the Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline; Bryan Murray of Georgia State University’s Alonzo A. Crim Center for Urban Educational Excellence; Dale Hamby, assistant principal at the Floyd County Education Center and Neil Shorthouse from Communities in Schools, a dropout-prevention nonprofit.

The Oct. 6 forum, called Equity in Education: A Conversation on Race, Class, Disabilities and Alternative Schools, runs from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Auburn Avenue Research Library Auditorium, 101 Auburn Avenue NE Atlanta GA 30303-2503, (404) 730-4001.

Photo by the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law & Justice

Georgia Juvenile Code Rewrite May Be Close To A Vote

Georgia’s long-awaited Juvenile Code rewrite— the first in four decades — is inching closer to completion.

Some key stakeholders involved in shaping the legislation are scheduled to meet Friday afternoon to hammer out more details in Senate Bill 127, also known as the Child Protection and Public Safety Act. Many of the issues slated for discussion were raised at a Senate Judiciary Committee (SJC) hearing at the state capitol Monday.

“We’ve had a positive start to the session and this hearing is just a part of finishing up the vetting of this bill,” said Sharon Hill, executive director of the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a non-profit helping to lead the rewrite effort. “Today was a good day. We are getting closer to the completion of this bill.”

Sharon Hill

Barton Child Law and Policy Center Policy Director Kirsten Widner briefed the committee on the many changes that have been made to it since its prior life as SB 292. That piece of legislation was introduced in the Georgia Senate in 2009, but failed to make it to the floor for a vote by the end of the two-year legislative term. Supporters said they are optimistic the current bill will get passed swiftly.

“I am thrilled to hear the support of the committee; all parties are much closer together in terms of our agreement on the core issues,” said Widner. “I think we’re well positioned to get this bill passed. I appreciate everyone’s commitment to the process. We’ve all been at the table working together on this. I look forward to meeting with the stakeholders later this week.”

Widner, of the Barton Center, joined representatives from the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia and Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (GACDL) — all organizations that have participated in shaping the bill— in presenting information before the committee chaired by Sen. Bill Hamrick (R- Carrollton).

The fact that the current draft does not endow superior court judges with the power to review the details of a case and transfer it back to juvenile court was debated heavily in Monday’s hearing. GACDL, which represents public defenders, also raised another concern dealing with sex offenders.

Kirsten Widner

“We support the bill as is, but we would like to see sex offenses removed from the list of charges that are mandatory transfers to superior court,” explained Sandra Michaels, a lobbyist for the organization. “Those types of cases are very fact specific; they are more like mental health crimes that merit treatment as opposed to punishment.”

DeKalb County defense attorney Gina Mangham said she hopes all changes related to  SB 440 and SB 441 , how children get charged as adults and what sentences they receive, gets approved. “Clearly more work needs to be done on this, but this rewrite is a step in the right direction,” she said. “This rewrite does a better job of dealing with the underlying issues that delinquent children face. Most of the kids who get prosecuted as adults are children of color, so this disproportionately affects our community. As an advocate, you have to be concerned about that.”

Defense attorney Viveca Famber Powell agreed.

“I’m glad that they’re considering other options for delinquent children other than prison,” said Famber Powell, a former supervisor for Fulton County Court’s juvenile unit. “That’s not to say that they should just go free, but it’s great that we are finally looking at other options like supervision and rehabilitation as opposed to just punishment.”

Famber Powell, too, said she is optimistic that the “gargantuan task” of rewriting Georgia’s juvenile code may finally be nearing an end.

“This new approach will allow us to transform someone who is a drain on society to one who is a benefit to society,” she said. “We can transform people; children can change.”

Some of the many key changes in the drafts from SB 292 to SB 127 include:

  • “Deprivation” cases, those involving children who have been taken under the court’s protection due to abuse or neglect, are referred to as “dependency” cases, in line with the terminology used in the 49 other states.
  • The age at which a child could be held to have committed a designated felony is lowered from 14 to 13.
  • “Smash and Grab” burglaries are added to the list of designated felonies as a result of HB 1104.
  • First time minor weapons at school infractions are excluded from the definition of designated felony as a result of SB 299.
  • There is more flexibility in the system of services that the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) is required to provide for all eligible children.
  • The definition of emotional abuse was updated to include significant risk of harm in addition to actual harm.
  • The definition of children in need of services (CHINS) was updated by:

o   Adding cross references for truancy and runaway provisions, and

o   Eliminating underage sex as grounds for alleging that a child is in need of services.

  • The definition of dependent child has been clarified to require not only that the child has been abused and neglected, but is also in need of the protection of the court.

VIEW A Summary of SB 127 Changes

If passed, the code rewrite would comprehensively revise Title 15, Chapter 11 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, relating to juvenile courts and the cases they hear. Throughout 2009 and 2010, the SJC and a specially appointed subcommittee reviewed the bill in detail, and a group of stakeholders met to agree on issues that needed refinement in the Act. Through this process, the measure was revised and reintroduced on February 23rd as SB 127, also known as “the Children’s Code.”

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Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at cthom141@kennesaw.edu. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta and Atlanta, People and Essence magazines.

Child Advocates Celebrate Juvenile Code Rewrite Bill Advancement At Reception

The introduction of a long-awaited juvenile code rewrite in the state Senate earlier in the day added to the celebratory mood of an evening reception held in honor of Governor Nathan Deal’s nine newly appointed directors of child-focused state agencies.

Many child advocacy organizations turned out for the event hosted by Voices for Georgia's Children.

The Blue Room at the Georgia Freight Depot was all abuzz with the news that Sen. Bill Hamrick’s (R-30) SB 127 was likely headed to a Judiciary Committee hearing, possibly as soon as next week. “We are thrilled to know that it has been introduced,” said Emory University’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center Policy Director Kirsten Widner. The organization was actively involved in drafting the legislation. “We feel that the work we’d done over the summer with our stakeholders has led to a much stronger bill. It involves some compromises among our key stakeholders and we are glad to have Sen. Hamrick as our sponsor. The Judiciary Committee has been very supportive and all of the members have signed on as co-signers of the bill.”

Pat Willis is the executive director of VOICES for Georgia’s Children, a statewide organization that supports research, communication, and advocacy for issues related to children and families.

Even the governor weighed in after he briefly introduced his “2011 Leadership Team For Children.” Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Commissioner Amy Howell, Department of Human Services Commissioner Clyde Reese, Governor’s Office for Children & Families Executive Director Jennifer Bennecke and Office of the Child Advocate Director Tonya Boga were among the honorees. “I haven’t had a chance to look at the final version, but I look forward to seeing what they recommend that we do,” the governor said of the measure. “As a former juvenile court judge, I certainly see the value in ensuring that our juvenile justice system is functioning properly.”

Commissioner Howell echoed a similar sentiment. “The juvenile code rewrite certainly has the potential to dramatically impact what we do,” Howell said. She’d represented DJJ in stakeholders meetings during her previous tenure as Deputy Commissioner. “I look forward to having the opportunity to read the current version of the bill. I really appreciate how the stakeholders have responded to the feedback on it. I am optimistic that the current version will reflect our new thoughts about the juvenile system. I look forward to participating in the process.”

Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children Executive Director Normer Adams said the legislation is long overdue. “The new code is much more proactive in regards to public safety and better ensures that children get the services that they need, rather than criminalizing normal adolescent behaviors,” he said. “That’s the best part.”

Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice Executive Director Sharon Hill agreed. “The current version, just improves due process for kids; it gives an opportunity to provide more justice for children and families,” said Hill, a former judge. “Clarity, consistency and fairness will lead to due process for kids.”

Hill said she is impressed with the bill’s rapid progression since the rewrite began in 2004. “For it to be this far along in this amount of time is remarkable,” she said. “It’s a natural consequence to the broad outreach to the stakeholders.”

Gov. Deal poses with some of his nine newly appointed directors of child-focused state agencies, including DJJ and DHS.

A new code — the first in four decades — was introduced in 2009, as The Child Protection and Public Safety Act, but failed to make it to the floor for a vote by the end of the two-year legislative term. With an outgoing governor, the timing was likely not quite right, Hill said. She’s now hopeful that having a new administration in place will be an asset to SB 127. Governor Deal’s recent announcement of plans to assemble a new bi-partisan council to study criminal justice reforms, she said, could also be a plus. “With the leadership team in place now there’s going to be a new freshness to it that will give it some momentum to get passed,” she said. “We hope that it will also provide some momentum for it to be implemented. That’s the hard part.”

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Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at cthom141@kennesaw.edu. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta and Atlanta, People and Essence magazines.

Feds Say Suspension Overused on Minority Students

A growing number of schools suspend over 50% of their racial and ethnic students in a given year, according to a Southern Poverty Law Center study.

The study, called Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis, found that zero tolerance policies in schools have led to suspension being overused as a disciplinary tool, especially for kids of color.

This corresponds with the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice’s public school discipline study across the state, which is underway right now. As JJIE.org reported Friday, Georgia Appleseed is surveying parents and kids in Phase II of its study on school discipline methods in public schools.

An early version of the study, called Effective School Discipline: Keeping Kids in Class, showed a high number of minority kids being punished by out-of-school suspension, which adversely affected their success in school. School systems with the highest rates of suspension had graduation rates below the state average.

The Georgia study also found that black kids, special education students and those receiving free or reduced lunches were disciplined more than other kids.

If you’re interested in learning how to reduce disproportionate minority contact in school suspensions, check out the webinar called “The Critical Role of Schools in Combating Disproportionate Minority Contact: National Perspective and Local Solutions”, taking place on November 18 at 11am. The event is hosted by a group with a very long name: The National Evaluation and Technical Assistance Center for the Education of Children and Youth Who Are Neglected, Delinquent, or At Risk. Click here to register.

Ga. School Discipline Report Findings Shared At Statewide Truancy Prevention Conference

The clock is ticking for the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. Administrators for the Atlanta-based public interest law non-profit are hoping to wrap up the second phase of its Effective School Discipline: Keeping Kids in Class report by Dec. 15.  Ga. Appleseed's Rob Rhodes and Sharon Hill present at the truancy conference.

Despite the looming deadline pressure, the report’s primary author, Rob Rhodes, took time out Thursday to share  phase one of the study results with community stakeholders attending the 2010 Georgia Truancy and Delinquency Prevention Conference. The three-day event hosted by the Truancy Intervention Project (TIP) wrapping up today in Marietta, is the non-profit truancy prevention agency’s first-ever statewide conference. Presenters at the Governor’s Office for Children and Families funded conference have included TIP co-founder and former Fulton County Juvenile Court Chief Judge Glenda Hatchett and Judge Michael Key, president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. Statistics shared at the session led by Rhodes and Executive Director Sharon Hill suggested a correlation between school discipline, truancy and high dropout rates in Georgia.

“High school dropouts are 63 times more likely to be incarcerated than college graduates,” said Rhodes,” Georgia Appleseed’s director of legal affairs. “And 68.4 percent of Georgia prisoners have less than a high school education.”

He also noted that with a rate of 8.81, Georgia schools rank ninth on the nation’s list of out-of-school suspensions (OSS). South Carolina, Florida, West Virginia, Mississippi and North Carolina round out the top five respectively.

“I like to say it’s one of the few lists where Georgia ranks in the top 10," he quipped. “The systems with the highest OSS rates had the lowest graduation rates. Clearly keeping kids out of class can’t be good in terms of helping them to receive a quality education.”

The analysis also found that 71 percent of out-of-school suspensions are administered for offenses considered minor, in comparison to 29 percent deemed major.  The numbers shifted for expulsions, where 59 percent were related to minor offenses compared to 41 percent for major ones.

“It was a great session; I’m excited to know that this research is going on,” said Sonja Tobler, a school social worker serving students in the City of Decatur along with DeKalb and Rockdale Counties. “This was very helpful information to me. We are looking at the issue of a lot kids coming into our program with no exit plan; no real plan of how to return to their home school.”

Attendee Paula Freer, a program specialist for a regional education service provider, agreed. “It just reinforces the actual need out there,” said Freer of the Metro West Georgia Learning Resources System. “It’s nice to know that behavior and discipline is becoming a focus. It has been under the radar for so long. I hope that this is part of a push toward strengthening positive behavioral support. In a lot of places it’s beginning to make a real difference.”

Rhodes is now in the midst of the second phase of the report, which includes a more in-depth data analysis and a rigorous interview schedule with representatives from “the Georgia Department of Education, district and school personnel and other stakeholders.” He is also working with Parent Teacher Associations and other community organizations statewide to distribute surveys to parents and students.

The first phase of the report, subtitled, “An Assessment of Georgia’s Public School Disciplinary Policies, Practices and Outcomes,” featured an analysis of discipline reports in grades K-12 in Georgia public schools.

The data compiled by the Georgia Department of Education found that African-American students, special education students and those receiving free or reduced lunches were disciplined more than other students.

  • African-American students made up 37.7 percent of the student body in 2008-2009, but received 58.9 percent of the disciplinary actions.
  • Special education students, who comprise 11 percent of the student body, received 18.2 percent of the out-of-school suspensions and 23.7 percent of expulsions.
  • And the 53 percent of students who were eligible for free or reduced lunches made up 73 percent of the out-of-school suspensions.

“The racial disparities did not surprise me,” noted Tobler. “I was most surprised at the disparities of who got out-of-school suspension and who got in-school-suspension. Those type of disparities tend to create issues within the school setting when you see kids getting different treatment for the same offenses.”

Hill said the organization hopes to meet its December deadline in an effort to make the data available for the state’s next legislative session. The research is also being completed in association with JustGeorgia, a statewide juvenile justice coalition formed in 2006.

Hill also encouraged workshop attendees to spread the word that parents may download a free workbook on the Georgia Appleseed website. When My Child Is Disciplined At School, she said, is a “step-by-step guide for parents.” As for the research, she said her organization is looking at the findings from a variety of perspectives.

“We’re looking at parental involvement and also looking to work with school administrators,” she said. “We’re talking to parents and sharing with them. Parents can be an important factor in a child’s success or failure.”

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Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at cthom141@kennesaw.edu. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Atlanta, Essence and People magazines and Fox 5 News in Atlanta.