By Ed Brock
Several Clayton County agencies have signed an agreement that will set the standard for treating criminal offenses in the county's schools.
The agreement is intended to define what cases should be handled within the school system and which ones should be sent to the juvenile court system. It is an effort to avoid imposing the stigma of criminal prosecution on young people who are guilty of minor infractions, said Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske, one of the authors of the agreement.
"Instead of charging students and giving them a record on such minor offenses when most are not truly delinquent kids," Teske said. "It makes sense to respond with an educational approach and not a criminal approach."
Some of the misdemeanor delinquent acts included in the agreement are school fights, disorderly conduct, obstruction of police in cases involving truancy in which students attempt to flee and criminal trespass cases that do not involve property damage.
Under the agreement the students would receive a warning notice for a first infraction. A second infraction would get the student, along with his or her parents, referred to a court-sponsored program. With a third infraction the student becomes subject to being charged in juvenile court.
The agencies included in the agreement along with the juvenile court are the police departments in the county with student resource officers (Clayton County, Riverdale, Forest Park and Jonesboro), the Clayton County Center for Behavioral Health Services, the county's Department of Family and Children's Services and the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.
The idea for the agreement came from the Clayton County Juvenile Detention Alternative Collaborative, an organization sponsored by the juvenile court and the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative, according to Teske. Work began on the agreement in August 2003.
On Friday members of the agencies participating in the program met to work on the nuts and bolts of the agreement. The early stages of implementing the agreement points out the need for further collaboration, said Luvenia Jackson, Assistant Superintendent for Student Services for Clayton County Public Schools and another author of the agreement.
"Everybody talks about school safety. This is a primary concern," Jackson said. "(The agreement) covers the entire student code of conduct."
Teske said that on July 21 and 22 the county's SROs, school principals and administrators and juvenile intake officers will begin training in the agreement.
Putting the agreement into practice should be no problem, said Forest Park police Cpl. Walter Randall who has been in the SRO program since it began in the 1992-1993 school year. Randall, who is also an SRO instructor at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth, said the agreement would streamline the SROs' job and give them time to focus on preventing criminal activity in the schools.
"It's actually the way I've been operating for some time," Randall said. "I've always gone under the assumption that the juvenile court should be used as a last resort, not a first resort."
Randall will also go to the GPSTC in Forsyth with Teske and others to present the agreement at the 2004 School Safety Seminar on Aug. 4. Teske said that Pete Colbenson, director of the Georgia Children and Youth Coordinating Council that along with Georgia Emergency Management Agency is a sponsor of the Aug. 4 seminar, has said the agreement is the first of its kind.
"Colbenson said folks, this is going to be a model for the country," Teske said.
Clayton County District Attorney Bob Keller also said he is excited about being involved in the agreement.
"I think it's a tremendous opportunity for the school system and the court system," Keller said. "It clarifies what the school system will be able to do to handle those minor disciplinary problems while still protecting the students."
It will also allow the court system to focus on those cases that need continuous intervention and to protect school personnel while treating and rehabilitating youthful offenders, Keller said.