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Agencies cooperating on bullying problem

By Ed Brock

A new system is on the way for Clayton County schools that will allow student resource officers and school administrators to better determine when a student who breaks the law should be sent into the court system or disciplined at school.

The case of 13-year-old Daryl Gray of Jonesboro, recently sentenced to probation for stabbing a fellow classmate he said was bullying him in the face with a pencil, has brought the issue of school bullying and violence into the public eye. But Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske said he initiated a cooperative agreement in August that will lay out uniform rules for dealing with a situation like Gray's.

"It would assure that that each child is treated equally in every school," Teske said.

Participants in the agreement would include the county's juvenile court, the school system, the police departments that have SROs (Clayton County, Riverdale, Forest Park and Jonesboro), the Clayton County District Attorney's Office, the Clayton County Department of Family and Children's Services and the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.

On Thursday representatives from each agency will meet and are expected to finalize the agreement, Teske said. Teske said he called for the agreement in conjunction with the county's Assistant Superintendent for Student Services Luvenia Jackson.

"We just noticed a lot of offenders that were coming to juvenile court that didn't need to be there," Teske said.

One purpose of the agreement is to spare students the stigma of being declared delinquent, Teske said. Under the agreement, students charged with crimes such as disrupting a public school or fighting will essentially be given three chances.

On the first offense the student will essentially receive a warning, depending on the discretion of the SRO who may elect to take no action at all if the school disciplines the student.

With the second offense the student is sent to the juvenile court's "School Conflict Diversion Program to receive law related education and conflict resolution programming," according to the agreement.

Allowing the students to be referred to the diversion program without sending them first through the court system is a "key piece" to the agreement, Jackson said, because the parents of the child are required to attend the program, too. While the school system has counseling programs in place to deal with bullying, they can't force parents to participate.

"Everybody talks about getting more parent involvement (in bullying cases), even the parents. But when it comes to it sometimes the parents don't come," Jackson said. "We don't have the authority to tell them they must come. But the courts do."

After a third offense the student must be referred to the court for delinquency consideration. Also, under state law, after three attempts to willfully threaten or inflict injury on another person and has the ability to inflict that damage they are considered a bully.

They must be expelled from the school and placed in an alternative school, Teske said.

In Gray's case, his mother Jeanette Gray and his lawyer Audrey Johnson insisted that the case against him never should have gone to trial. Jeanette Gray said her son had suffered through two years of severe abuse at school and was only fighting back against the boy he stabbed.

The new rules are intended to give SROs guidelines on when they must charge a student, Teske said, and he's even asked Pete Colbenson, director of the Georgia Children and Youth Coordinating Council to consult on the new agreement. Once implemented it will be the first such program in the state and Teske, who was also recently appointed to the CYCC, said Colbenson has asked them to present the program at a training program on Aug. 6 at the Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth.

Since the county began putting SRO's in schools in the late 1990s the number of referrals to the court system from the schools has increased dramatically, from around 90 a year to some 1,200 last year.

"I'm not against the SRO program, they serve a viable purpose," Teske said. "The problem is we need to have a uniform system to decide when a child should become part of the juvenile system."

Also, on Tuesday Clayton County District Attorney Bob Keller met with representatives of the Anti-Defamation League in Atlanta regarding their programs that address the issues that lead to bullying.

"We are working now to see if we can start a pilot project here in Clayton County," Keller said.