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Juvenile court reports decline in weapons at schools

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

A 2004 protocol, approved by the Clayton County School System and law enforcement representatives from across the county, has resulted in a 70-percent drop in the number of weapons found in local schools, according to the juvenile court judge who proposed the protocol.

Four years ago, Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske proposed that school resource officers (SROs) should spend more time collecting information about weapons in the county's schools, rather than spending time dealing with minor offenses. The school system, the district attorney's office, and the police departments for the county, Forest Park, Jonesboro and Riverdale, agreed to the protocol a year later.

The juvenile court, which deals with children 16 and under, has received 21 cases of weapons found in Clayton County schools, so far this year, according to data provided by Teske. Those are the lowest numbers since 2000. The same data also says there were about 10 weapons found in Clayton County schools in 1998, but the number peaked at 63 in 2004, when the protocol was agreed upon.

"This is about attacking the problem from all sides, not just head on, which involves charging students for anything and everything," Teske said. "That [head-on] approach didn't work. The number of weapons going into the schools kept going up."

Teske said the protocol was implemented so the SROs could perform the duty they were designed to perform in the schools - maintaining a safe and secure environment in the schools. It's purpose is to re-focus the SROs' efforts so they can gain the trust of students. The idea is information about weapons can be obtained through a more trusting environment.

"It's not about charging kids with everything," Teske said. "You have to do what I call 'smart policing.' If you want to solve a problem, you have to approach it in an abstract manner."

Teske's reported results are catching attention from across the United States. He said he's spoken to juvenile court representatives from 10 counties in Alabama, 17 counties in Oregon, and juvenile judges from across Virginia about the Clayton County results.

"I've been impressed by two things," said Brian Huff, the presiding juvenile court judge for Jefferson County, Ala., where Birmingham is located. "Judge Teske has been able to get all of the players to sit down together at the table. I've also been impressed by the way he's been able to reduce the number of unnecessary referrals coming into the juvenile court system. That allows probation officers to spend more time working on the issues that really matter, such as rape, robbery, or murder."

The SROs were brought into the high schools in the mid-1990's to act as a resource for students, faculty and administrators at local schools. The program was extended to the middle schools in 1998.

Lt. Scott Stubbs, the commander of the SRO program for the Clayton County Police Department said the officers are trained in areas such as public speaking, hostile intruder drills, handling a pandemic situation, and educating students on the dangers of gangs.

The SROs also go out into the community once a week to look for children who are skipping school. The program, known as the Strategic Method Against Street Harm (S.M.A.S.H.), was started by the Clayton County Police Department two and a half years ago.

Stubbs said officers were picking up an average of 21 students per week in the beginning, but the average for the current school year is just seven students.

"We're trying to work within the collaborative effort [established by the protocol], and make the system work as a whole," Stubbs said.