A panel of school administrators and criminal justice officials spoke Thursday during Clayton County Public Schools’ community forum on school safety and security. (Staff Photo: Johnny Jackson)
JONESBORO — About 300 parents, students and officials turned out for the “safer schools” community forum Thursday night.
Jeff Smoot arrived early to the event held at Mundy’s Mill High. The father of freshman Jemaria Smoot, 14, was there earlier that day to participate in the school’s National Parent Involvement Day activities.
Smoot, who is also chair of the school council, made his mission returning to participate in the forum.
“Safer schools mean safer kids,” he said. “It’s conducive to a great learning environment.”
Smoot said his main objective as an active parent is to help give students “a feeling of safety so they do not have to worry about being bullied or threatened by gangs” by bringing such activity to the attention of school administrators.
Mundy’s Mill High School principal William Greene and student Marquis Kempson thanked parents and community members for turning out.
Several administrators attended the forum also looking to gain insight on how best to approach the issue of school safety and security. Sitting in the school cafeteria, they were flanked by officers from various local law enforcement agencies, including the Clayton County Public Schools Police Department.
Superintendent Luvenia Jackson, who led the way in creating the schools police department last summer, was the first to speak to the crowd.
“You’ve heard this so many times before — it takes a village,” Jackson said as she spoke about gang violence and bullying in schools.
“What we have said in no uncertain terms is that we’re not going to have it in our schools,” she said, addressing parents. “It begins with you because the school does not buy guns. The school doesn’t issue guns. It comes through the doors.”
Speakers, throughout the event, pointed at the potential consequences for misconduct and criminal activity.
Teaching and Learning Executive Director Tamera Foley outlined penalties contained in the district’s student code of conduct and written in the student-parent handbook. Bullying and gang-related activity were among the issues she covered.
Alicia Dunn, coordinator in the department of guidance and counseling, followed her by describing bullying in its different forms.
The district’s police Chief Clarence Cox III addressed the crowd, reiterating the purpose of the forum was to engage parents in addressing issues related to school safety and security.
“It’s not a district problem, it’s not a national problem,” Cox said. “It’s a worldwide problem.”
Cox introduced the forum’s featured speaker, Gregory Thomas, who is the former chief of New York City Schools.
“The schools are a microcosm of society,” Thomas said. “(Troubled youth) they are out there reaching and speaking to you for help. They want to belong to something.”
Clayton County Juvenile Court Chief Judge Steven Teske followed Thomas. His voice boomed over the speakers.
“Our strength is in the numbers that you see here tonight,” Teske said.
“We spend too much time locking up and arresting the kids who make us mad,” he said. “We must learn to differentiate between the kids who scare us and the kids who make us mad.”
Clayton County is beginning to embrace the mentality.
Teske said the county has managed to form a national model for intergovernmental partnerships among school system, Juvenile Court and law enforcement to limit the number of juveniles entering the criminal justice system.
“This is not the first time Ms. Jackson has been to this rodeo,” he said.
Teske said that since 2003, with the leadership of Jackson thenas an assistant superintendent, the number of juvenile crime cases has decreased by 60 percent. He said the turnaround happened when police and authority figures began being more positive towards students.
“It’s called the positive student engagement of school policing,” he said. “We have to make sure that the ones we target are the ones who scare us.”
Those who fall through the cracks may have to answer with adult consequences, Assistant District Attorney Jason Green said.
Green spoke about “life after 16,” the age at which alleged criminals are treated as adults in the criminal justice system.
“We have to get this right by 16,” he said. “Because otherwise they go to a whole other level. We don’t want that kind of graduation. We don’t want them graduating from Juvenile Court to my court.”