County, school officials address gang problem

By Greg Gelpi

Trying to take on school violence from two fronts, elected officials are trying to double team the growing gang problems of the county.

Members of the Clayton County Board of Education met with Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell over lunch Monday at Buckhead's City Grill.

The meeting allowed the county and school board to mend what has been a contentious relationship during the past year and provided an opportunity for the two sides to "break bread," school board Chairwoman Ericka Davis said. Much of the meeting focused on the county's gang problem and how the two government entities can work together to address the common concern.

Davis said that it's important to recognize that the problem of school violence isn't one that the school board can address alone and that it's important to keep an "open line of communication" with the county, which provides school resource officers and actually has the ability to arrest.

"In looking at this issue, we don't want to make knee-jerk decisions," she said, adding that she has been studying the issue and wants to conduct a joint gang conference with the county pulling in outside experts.

Bell said the meeting showed his commitment to working with the school board, a commitment he vowed when he addressed the board shortly after his taking office.

"My interests are particularly with the safety of school children," said Bell, who has more than 30 years of law enforcement of experience, including serving as the Atlanta chief of police. "I want our schools to get ahead of the curve and be proactive and not reactive."

Davis said the meeting only had three school board members and, therefore, didn't constitute a legal meeting of the board. Other board members at the meeting were Lois Baines Hunter and Wendell "Rod" Johnson.

Johnson said the board met with Bell at that particular location because Davis, Bell and he were already in that area.

"We wanted to discuss some of the gang activity that is in our schools," Johnson said, adding that he wants to find ways to get a "handle" on the problem.

He said that it's important for police officers, particularly school resource officers, to receive training in dealing with gangs.

Although it's difficult to determine how bad the gang problem is in the school system, Johnson said the important issue is providing a safe place for students to attend school.

Johnson said no tax dollars were spent on the meal.

"It definitely wasn't paid for by our taxpayers," he said.

A delegation from Clayton County schools is also leaving for Florida today to view an alternative school, which has shown success and could hold promise as a model for Clayton County's alternative school, Davis said.

Clayton County schools Superintendent Barbara Pulliam, along with board members Connie Kitchens and Eddie White, will be making the trip.

Staff at the alternative school have cited lax security, weak discipline policies and increasing violence at the school for causes of concern.

The school board is expected to consider plans for increasing school security during its monthly business meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday at the Administrative Complex, 1058 Fifth Ave., Jonesboro.

Pulliam has said that she will ask the board for authorization to use dogs in schools to sniff out drugs and weapons, as well as permission to use metal-detecting wands.

"I'm opposed to it," Bell said. "All of my professional experience tells me that this would not be a good thing. Dogs are too unpredictable."

Bell said that the meeting was merely a discussion and that the school board hasn't asked for suggestions or recommendations.