By Ed Brock
Kimberly Gates is tired of violence in and around Clayton County's schools and she's planning to do something about it.
"I think it's a mother's worst nightmare to send your kid to school and worry that they won't come home," Gates said.
Gates, 39, has lived through that nightmare once and almost had to experience it twice.
In October 2003 her oldest son, Devon Gates, then 19, was killed at a party by alleged gang member 19-year-old Vap Chhoum. Chhoum later pleaded guilty to the crime and was sentenced to life in prison.
Then earlier this month her other son, 16-year-old Deron Gates, had his own brush with gang violence.
On March 10, Gates said, a group of girls who were supposedly members of the "Southside Mafia" gang came to Morrow High School where Deron Gates and Kimberly Gates' two daughters are students. The Southside Mafia girls started a fight with Deron Gates' girlfriend.
"My daughters tried to break it up," Gates said.
When the other girls started to fight with his sisters, Deron Gates stepped in.
"This happened 10 feet from the office of Morrow High School," Gates said.
After the fight, one of the girls told her brother, another alleged Southside Mafia member, that Deron Gates had "stomped" on her. Later that night the brother called Gates' house and one of her daughters answered the phone.
"He said tell Deron I'm going to kill him when I see him," Gates said.
Gates took the threat very seriously and sent Deron Gates out of state to stay with relatives. She says she's talked to school board members and the school's student resource officer about what is being done to stop such incidents from happening, but she's gotten no answers.
Security at the schools seems slack to her, Gates said, especially after regular school hours which is when the fight occurred between her children and the alleged gang members.
"(School officials) have no idea who's trespassing and who's not," Gates said.
She was happy to learn about the Clayton County Police Department's new "Operation SMASH" aimed at providing a safer learning environment.
The acronym stands for "Special Methods Against Street Harm," and as a part of the program the county's school resource officers each week direct sweeps and patrols around schools in troubled areas. Part of their mission is to stop non-students with bad intentions from coming onto the school grounds.
"That's exactly what they need," Gates said.
County police plan to continue Operation SMASH every week for the rest of this school year and next year at least, Clayton County Police Capt. Jeff Turner said.
"And we're trying to be more proactive and get involved in more school programs," Turner said.
Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Pulliam "takes a dim view of individuals on our campuses who are not supposed to be there," school system spokesman Charles White said.
While White said he had no information on the specific incident to which Gates was referring, he said Pulliam will be meeting this week with the county's school principals to discuss some new approaches to the problem.
There are several steps she plans to take, White said.
Students will be educated on the need to keep their student identifications readily available to demonstrate to school officials that they are supposed to be on school grounds. Each school's doors are to be locked, in a way that complies with the county's fire codes, to limit ingress to the school and encourage visitors to go to the office to check in.
Anyone found on the school grounds without the proper pass and without good cause to be there will be asked to leave, White said.
"If they decide they don't want to leave then they will be removed by law enforcement officials," White said.
The school system will need the community's support in any effort to secure the schools, White said, so part of the new program will include educating parents and community members on what they can do to help.
"Basically we're just trying to find ways to make this happen," White said.
White said the system's goal is to implement the new measures after spring break ends on April 8.
Gates plans to do what she can to help. She's teaming up with former Pointe South Middle School teacher Valerie Hamilton to hold a "Youth Day" at Sparkles roller skating rink on April 7. The idea is to provide some entertainment for young people and give them something to do so they will hopefully stay out of trouble.
That's something that needs to be done on a regular basis, the women say.
"(Government officials) spend more money on crime and building prisons and these kids don't even have a youth center," Hamilton said.
For more information on the Youth Day event call Hamilton at (770) 996-6577. Hamilton also hopes Gates will help her form an organization called Mothers Against Violence that would unite other mothers who have lost children to violence.
"She lost two sons," Hamilton said about Gates.
Gates said she does feel like she's lost Deron Gates as well now that he is out of state.
"I always kept my children together," Gates said. "Devon was the first to leave."
Another project aimed at stopping school violence is the Peace Club at E.W. Oliver Elementary School in Riverdale. This year the club began working with "Project Handling It before Prison (HIP)" that is sponsored by Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske and Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill, said E.W. Oliver Coach Fred Hill.
On Tuesday Hill's club and Project HIP members, including Teske, will hold a parent/student workshop at the school from 11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Hill said he has taught older kids with troubles before and tried to change their ways.
"I came down to the elementary level to direct (the students away from violence) ... but it's still too late," Hill said.
Young people today aren't acting violently without a reason, Gates and Hamilton said. They need to be helped. Gates said she sees that need even in Chhoum despite her anger with him over the death of her son.
"Something's going on with him. He needs to be helped," Gates said.