Bibb schools undercharging student crime, says DA

Bibb County campus police officers undercharged students who committed serious crimes at school in at least 29 cases during the past 18 months, prosecutors say.

In many of the cases, the student offenders were charged with misdemeanors instead of the more appropriate felonies, said Bibb County District Attorney Howard Simms and Assistant District Attorney Mike Smith.

The cases included students threatening to shoot teachers, drug sales at school and students throwing school furniture at teachers.

When students are charged with lesser offenses, it allows them to come right back to the classroom instead of serving time in a youth detention center, both prosecutors said. Also, it doesn’t hold the students accountable for attacking teachers and students or making threats against them, they said.

“I’ve found a lot of fishy things, sketchy police work a trained officer should know,” said Smith, who prosecutes juveniles in Bibb County Juvenile Court and gets almost half his caseload from the school system.

“Either (campus) officers don’t know better — and we are trying to remedy that, or they are being told something by their (superiors)” to water down the charges, he said. “Either one is not good.”

Months ago, Smith said he began noticing that he was frequently having to upgrade charges in student crimes. Afterward, he asked that his office review juvenile cases back to September 2008, when he first arrived in the District Attorney’s Office.

In 39 cases reviewed, the District Attorney’s Office found that either campus police officers undercharged students or did not follow protocol, Smith said. Also, one campus officer lost an initial incident report in a case for months, and another officer didn’t report a case for five days, Smith said.

When students commit serious crimes at school — such as bringing in weapons, physically harming students or teachers or threatening lives — campus officers are supposed to call a youth detention center, called “juvenile intake,” which decides whether to detain a student based on a point system and whether the student has committed prior offenses.

In those 39 cases, more times than not, campus officers were not making that call, the prosecutors said.

“Our point is what these kids get charged with needs to be accurately reflected,” Simms said. “It does not need to be undercharging, and we are upgrading these offenses.”

Sylvia McGee, the Bibb County school system’s interim superintendent, was out sick Tuesday, and a message to her at home was not returned.

Daniel DeCoursey, hired as the system’s new campus police chief in December, said prosecutors often handle cases in different ways, and there has been no indication that anyone in the school system’s central office directed campus police to undercharge any cases.

“It’s not a question of agreeing or disagreeing” with the prosecutors’ claims, he said. “They have their own preferences. I’m not going to Monday-morning quarterback on what could have been or should have been.

“We’re excited we have a young prosecutor following up on these cases,” he said, and doing so is a positive “all the way around.”

What the files say

Here’s a sample of some of the school cases in which campus police undercharged students, according to the District Attorney’s Office:

— A Ballard-Hudson Middle School student in the Crips gang threatened to beat up another student this past March if that student did not pay him money. The Crips student was found at school one day with more than $50 that the other student had paid him. Smith said he wasn’t sure how much the student had paid out over the course of the school year.

Campus police charged the Crips member with misdemeanor simple assault, disorderly conduct and possession of tobacco by a minor.

The District Attorney’s Office upgraded the charges to terroristic threats, a felony, as well as participation in gang activity, theft by extortion, obstruction and possession of tobacco.

With the upgraded charges, the boy pleaded guilty to gang activity, obstruction and the tobacco charge. He served 30 days in youth detention and is on probation for a year, Smith said.

— This past September, a Howard Middle School student disrupted class and beat his hands on his desk. When the teacher told him to stop and grabbed his hands, the student grabbed her by the back of her neck, pulled her hair and tried to choke her. The student told the teacher he was going to get his gun, come back to school and shoot her.

The campus officer who investigated the case waited five days before filing charges “after careful consideration for student, staff and school safety.” No school official consulted with the teacher, Smith said.

Campus officers charged the student with misdemeanor simple battery and disorderly conduct. The District Attorney’s Office upgraded the charges to battery on school personnel, terroristic threats, which are felonies, and disrupting a public school. The officer never called a juvenile detention center.

The student pleaded guilty in November and received five days in a youth detention center and a year on probation.

— In November, a Howard Middle School student told his teacher, “I will bring a gun to the school and shove it down your throat and shoot you, and if your husband comes up here, I will shoot him, too.”

The student — in front of other students — also grabbed the teacher by her arm, causing red marks.

Campus police charged the student with disorderly conduct and simple battery, both misdemeanors. The officer did not call juvenile intake. The district attorney’s office upgraded the charges to terroristic threats, battery on school personnel and disrupting public school.

The student could be sentenced later this week.

— In October, an Elam Alexander student in a special program at Northeast High School got into a fight with another student.

During the fight, the student hit a teacher who was eight months pregnant. The teacher had to get medical treatment after complications resulting from the incident.

The campus officer charged the student with simple battery and affray, or public fighting, both misdemeanors. The DA’s office upgraded the charges to a felony, battery on school personnel, affray and disrupting a public school. The student, who has three prior felony convictions, has yet to go to trial.

— In April, a Central High School student threatened an administrator, saying, “I am gonna shoot the school up because y’all got my cell phone.” The student also threatened: “I will throw you on the back of your neck.”

Campus police charged the student with misdemeanor simple assault on school personnel, but the District Attorney’s Office upgraded the charges to two counts of terroristic threats and disrupting a public school. Campus officers also did not call juvenile intake.

The student, who had two prior felonies, pleaded guilty in October and was ordered to serve 20 days, as well as a year of probation.

— Three Howard High School students were selling marijuana in gym class and the school bathroom for about $15 a bag.

Campus police charged the teenagers with possession of marijuana on school grounds. The District Attorney’s Office upgraded the charges to possession and sale of marijuana. Again, campus police did not call juvenile intake. The teens were referred to drug court by the DA’s office.

Training should help

In the case files, there are other instances in which students brought knives to school, students in gangs committed gang-related crimes at school, a student threw a computer monitor at a teacher and another student threw a desk that hit a teacher, breaking a wrist. In all the cases, campus police undercharged the students, Smith said.

“This is one reason we have teachers who don’t want to come here,” Smith said. They believe “it’s not safe (and) it has an effect on learning.”

Simms said that Jan. 25 he met with outgoing Superintendent Sharon Patterson and DeCoursey to address the situation.

This month, Smith also met with Bibb’s 25 campus police officers about more accurately charging students based on the crimes. Until then, Smith said campus police had never had a training session with the DA’s office.

One campus police officer said different things may be at play in the process of charging students.

Campus officers may be interpreting charges differently, he said, or they may be misinformed on what they can or cannot charge.

“Sometimes it’s interpreting what the code book says,” said the officer, who asked not to be named for fear of possible job actions.

Also, at one point, a former campus police supervisor had instructed officers not to issue the charge “disrupting a school.” He told officers that the Georgia Supreme Court had ruled the charge unconstitutional.

During the recent training with Smith, however, Smith told officers that wasn’t correct and that it could be used as a charge.

Supervisors can also review campus officers’ incident reports and make changes, but the officer said that generally doesn’t happen.

“Now we are calling (juvenile intake) for every felony,” the officer said. “I think we will get a lot more support.”

DeCoursey said the campus police force has been short-staffed and overworked in the past, but officers are working to get training and charge students accordingly.

“We will report accurately, I can assure you of that,” he said.

To contact writer Julie Hubbard, call 744-4331.