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.
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.”
Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at email@example.com. 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.
LaGrange—Judge Michael Key is a hometown boy, a son of the cotton mill village where he played rhythm guitar in a rock-and-roll band on Saturday nights and went to a Southern Baptist Church on Sundays. He was headed off to Emory University’s law school before he ever met a lawyer.
“Back then people just didn’t go from the mill village to being a lawyer,” he says.
For 31 years, Key (LaGrange High School, class of ’68) has been back home practicing law. For 21 of those years, he’s also been a part-time juvenile court judge.
Now the hometown boy has a national platform. As president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Key, 61, is a leader and spokesman for colleagues all over the country. He was sworn in on July 20.
Key—like other juvenile court judges—sees children at some of the worst times of their lives. Some are before him accused of crimes; others are victims of abuse or neglect, known in Georgia as deprivation.
Dealing with children is different than with adults, he says. In Superior Court, when a verdict is rendered, “the case is over and it’s on to the next case. That’s not the way it works in juvenile court.”
Federal law requires continued oversight of deprivation cases; as far as Key is concerned, moral law requires ongoing involvement in delinquency cases. Key reviews every child on probation every four months just to see how their lives are going.
“It’s not our job—and I don’t mean this in a derogatory way—just to call balls and strikes as we see them,” he says. “It’s our job to solve the problem. We see cases not just at one point in time but over a period of time. Hopefully we can resolve the issues.”
Often lines are blurred between delinquency and deprivation. “In deprivation, the parents are presented as the problem, but you can’t ignore the children in the process,” he says. “In delinquency, the child is presented to the court as the problem, but in most cases you can’t solve the problems without involving parents. In both cases you should have total family engagement.”
Many children are “crossover,” or “dual jacket” cases, so-called because they have file folders as both victims and delinquents. Unfortunately, the cases are usually dealt with separately, Key says. “The fact that we call them crossover youth suggests one of the problems we have,” he says. “You shouldn’t be crossing over within the same system.”
The National Council has a committee studying how to handle crossover cases more holistically.
The point, Key often tells audiences at workshops, is that “we want to be sure that every child is in care who needs to be in care—and not one child more.” It’s a philosophy he applies to foster care, probation and incarceration. The results in Troup County are evident in the statistics.
“I was talking with the chief probation officer and a couple of other staff members yesterday,” Key said earlier this month, “and our numbers are really low of kids under supervision. That’s deliberate. We’ve worked hard to get it that way. We’ve got the kids on probation that we need on probation, and we can spend time with those kids and give them services. . . .On the deprivation side, we have reduced, over 5 1/2 years, the number of kids in foster care in Troup County from 223 to 46. We got the numbers down because we worked the cases.”
Key has been a model to other judges, says Sharon Hill, a former juvenile judge who is now executive director of the advocacy group Georgia Appleseed. “He’s always cared deeply for the families and children before him. He’s in the forefront of best practices. I always looked to Judge Key for the right way to do things.”
Michelle Barclay, assistant director of the Office of Children, Families and Courts under Georgia’s Administrative Office of the Courts, has known him for about 15 years. “He’s got a lot of compassion,” she says. “One reason people are so attracted to him is there’s this part of him that’s so empathetic.”
Key expressed his empathy for children in thoughts he jotted down after a national conference:
“Their belongings in a bag, their hearts on a sleeve or tucked securely away,
Their futures not their own but held in the hands of those who do not know them.
Their worlds asunder; insecurity and mistrust their constant companions.
They come to us looking for answers, for understanding, for hope, for resolution.
What we give them will determine who they are and who they will forever be.
Equally as important, what they become because of their having passed our way will define our lives and our place in history.”
Because Key is always trying to improve, he’s willing to listen to other people’s points of view and even to change his mind, Barclay says. “He’s not wishy-washy but will moderate the way he’s thinking.”
Key says one opinion he’s changed is about incarcerating all kids convicted of drug and weapons charges. “We were putting some of our kids too deep into the system and doing more harm than good,” he says. The county was operating a diversion program for juveniles with misdemeanors. A friend convinced Key to extend it to some more serious offenses.
“A lot of kids caught in their first drug offense do not belong in the juvenile court system,” he says. As for weapons in schools, “zero tolerance is a mistake. It’s a mistake from the school’s perspective. It’s a mistake from the court’s perspective.”
Extending the opportunity for diversion fits with another Key belief—that courts should be the least intrusive and the least restrictive possible. That means, he says, that courts should try to “support families, not supplant families” and “to the greatest extent possible, let children be children and let families be families.”
As president of the National Council, Key, already a popular speaker, can have greater influence on national attitudes. It’s not the kind of office “where we have a platform we want to conclude in a year,” he says. Nevertheless, he is focusing on some areas of concern.
One is internal. Key, who has an M.B.A., is looking at the operations of the council. He’s also appointed committees to study military families in the justice system, and legal orphans.
“There are so many soldiers coming back from war,” he says. “At one time all soldiers lived in concentrated areas. Now that the National Guard is being deployed so much, when those people come back they’re not at Ft. Benning . They’re living in Troup County, Carroll County, Meriwether County and all these other counties where our judges are not as used to dealing with military law issues, military pay issues, military retirement issues.”
Military families bring “unique issues of family violence, deprivation, delinquency,” he says. “Particularly when they go to war, it makes those issues even more difficult to serve.”
“Legal orphans” are children whose parents’ rights have been terminated but who have not been adopted. Some have grown up with no permanent placement.
“Each of the last three or four years, we in Georgia have had over 100 children age out of foster care without a permanent family,” Key says. “We’ve cut off all legal connections to any family on this earth, and now they’re adults.”
Six to eight states, including Georgia, will be involved in a pilot program to address the problem, Key said.
The National Council, under Key’s leadership, will also continue efforts to ensure that community-based services are in place for status offenders—juveniles whose crimes, such as truancy or running away would not be illegal for adults.
“The judges don’t like to lock children up just for sake of locking them up, whether status offenders or otherwise,” he says, “but we have been denied services to meet the needs of our children.”
Key still practices law at Key & Gordy, a general interest law firm in downtown LaGrange. “Being a lawyer makes me a better judge,” he says, “and being a judge makes me better lawyer.”
Although he still “loves” both roles, he says he would like—someday—to be a full-time judge.
In juvenile court, of course.
"I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office to which I have been elected, and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and promulgate the ideals and philosophy of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges."
With that solemn oath, Judge Michael Key of Troup County, GA became the new President of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. Supreme Court of Georgia Justice P. Harris Hines administered the oath July 20 in San Diego at the organization’s 73rd annual conference.
In accepting his new responsibilities, Judge Key spoke about the implications of the new federal law that permits young people to remain in foster care longer, until they reach 21 years. At the same time, the new law has increased the requirements for keeping siblings together. He said efforts to reduce the number of children in foster care must put safety first. And he called for a new focus on reducing the number of the nation’s “legal orphans” – those who age out of foster whose parents had their rights terminated.
Among those present for the swearing-in were a number of Judge Key’s colleagues, including officers from the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges. Juvenile Court Judge Aaron Cohn of Muscogee County, GA delivered a taped inspirational message. Judge Key's younger son, daughter-in-law and three young grandchildren also delivered a taped message that was a tad less solemn and included a song to grandpa.
Michelle Barclay is director of the Supreme Court of Georgia's Committee on Justice for Children at the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Key has been a juvenile court judge since 1989, and is past president of the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges. He has been honored twice with the President’s Award, and was named Child Advocate of the Year by the Young Lawyer Division of the Georgia State Bar Association. Judge Key sits on the bench part time, and is a partner in the law firm of Key and Gordy, in LaGrange.
The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges has 2,000 members and is based at the University of Nevada in Reno.
Read the full news release here.