Against the recommendations of its own safety consultant, the Bibb County school system plans to stick with a recently signed agreement that will divert students who commit lower-level crimes away from Juvenile Court.
Court and law enforcement agencies, as well as some school board members, also defended the agreement Tuesday as a valuable collaboration. The district paid Macon consulting firm Safe Havens International $37,995 for an audit and report, which blasted the May agreement and urged the school district to pull out of it.
But Donald Porter, the public relations director for the system, said the district will not do so.
“The big picture is this collaborative effort gives us the best opportunity to positively affect the discipline issues that are going on in the district,” he said.
The agreement has not been implemented yet, Porter said. In the meantime, however, schools are dealing with offenses on a case-by-case basis according to the system’s student code of conduct.
Tom Matthews, chief judge for Bibb County Juvenile Court, said the Safe Havens report “is critical of something that hasn’t even happened yet. Let’s see how it works,” he said. “I just want the thing to be given a chance. ... It’s too early to bail on it.”
The Bibb County Student Offender Early Intervention Protocol Agreement would send students who commit lower-level crimes to a School Conflict Diversion Committee. The committee would recommend appropriate supports for the offender, such as counseling, gang prevention services or help with addiction recovery.
The committee would include representatives from the various agencies that signed the agreement, including Bibb County Juvenile Court, the Macon Police Department, the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office, the district attorney for the Macon Judicial District, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Bibb County Department of Family and Children Services, and others.
Attorney Veronica McClendon, who helped draft the agreement, wrote in a Monday e-mail to the partners: “I believe that our school system needs our support and partnership more than ever. ... We also need to show that the agreement is not a soft approach to student misbehavior. I believe that The Telegraph’s articles mislead the public into believing that we’re attempting to deal softly with major school offenses.”
She added, “The system has been a mess for many years, and we cannot blame everything on those who inherited it less than two years ago.”
Edward Judie, the school district’s deputy superintendent for student affairs, said Tuesday that the school system and other agencies that are part of the agreement are in the process of putting together the diversion committee. Ultimately, the district must listen to its community partners, he said.
“You have an outside agency who has made recommendations, but you have community stakeholders that have made this to be an important item for them,” Judie said. “I live in Macon. I consider myself a Maconite, so I’m going to listen to my community stakeholders, and my community stakeholders are the judicial system, our juvenile judicial system, our local police officers here. They have input.”
The agreement states that unless the committee recommends it, no student who commits a non-felony crime at school will be charged in Juvenile Court. In most cases, the committee would not even hear about the case unless it was at least a second offense.
Victims’ rights diminished?
As described in the agreement, the first time a student commits a non-felony crime, the student would simply be notified that his or her next criminal act will trigger an appearance before the committee. The only first offenses that would go straight to the committee are those related to drugs or weapons.
The Safe Havens report observes that this would basically eliminate the right of victims to press charges for non-felony offenses and would open the district up to lawsuits.
“In short, this approach dramatically lowers the standards of behavior without providing any counterbalancing support for victims of misdemeanor criminal conduct in the district as there would be if the incident occurred at a non-public school, the Macon Mall or a residential neighborhood,” stated the report, made public last week after a Telegraph request for it under the state’s Open Records Act.
Safe Havens, headed by former Bibb County campus Police Chief Michael Dorn, predicted that the early intervention agreement will encourage underreporting of crimes, increase actual victimizations and even increase the number of students dropping out, carrying weapons to school or committing suicide.
“It is likely that many of the students who select these options are from lower income families because their only choice for education lies with the public school system,” the report adds.
The agreement does not mention victims at all and does not give them any venue to address the committee or share how the crime has affected them.
Porter declined to directly address questions about whether the agreement protects victims’ rights. But more broadly, he said, “We believe this was a thoughtful process with a lot of stakeholders involved, and we’re comfortable that this is going to produce the outcomes we wanted.”
Matthews said many of the misdemeanors that come to Juvenile Court from schools are victimless crimes.
“A lot of the cases are ‘disrupting public schools’ where there are not victims,’” he said. Many others involve school fights, but any fight causing major injury would not be eligible for diversion because it would not be a misdemeanor, he said.
Matthews and Bibb County District Attorney Greg Winters said victims who are not satisfied with law enforcement’s response to a crime can always go to the district attorney’s office, even though that office signed the agreement.
“I do feel it protects victims’ rights,” Winters said. “If we find out there is underreporting of crimes, we can still pull cases and prosecute them. ... We have always and will always be open to victims’ concerns. That does not change.”
David Davis, chief deputy and sheriff-elect for Bibb County, said he thinks the agreement prevents the Sheriff’s Office and Macon police from filing charges about a school incident, even if parents filed a police report with one of those off-campus agencies.
But he said if such cases go to the committee, “If we feel strongly it should be prosecuted, I think we should be given some consideration and it should be allowed to go to Juvenile Court.”
Board member Lynn Farmer said she was in favor of the district’s adopting the agreement when it came before the board a few months ago, particularly because agencies could share student information with each other.
While both Superintendent Romain Dallemand and in-house attorney Randy Howard recommended doing so, Farmer said she would now like to get an opinion from school board attorneys at Hall Booth Smith & Slover, especially on issues of victims rights and the ability of law enforcement to prosecute a case.
“I see what Mike Dorn is saying,” Farmer said. “That’s why I would like the attorney to look at it.”
Sharing information will help
Matthews, Davis and Deputy Police Chief Mike Carswell said they would be open to later revising the agreement -- or the way it is implemented -- to add a formal way for victims to voice their opinions to the school committee.
“I think we are on the right track with this, but addressing victims in the agreement would be a good thing,” Carswell said.
Winters and Carswell emphasized the value of information sharing that will occur among agencies for the first time as a result of the agreement. “We’ll know what is going on, and that has been a concern,” Winters said.
The Safe Havens report also criticized the school system for underreporting school crimes and failing to keep accurate information about the number of fights and weapons in the schools.
“We want to report the facts as they are and keep the public updated,” said Carswell, pointing out that the causes and impacts of youth crime extend beyond the school system.
Although there are many privacy issues involved in dealing with students and juveniles, “We must be as transparent as possible,” Carswell said. “If we don’t deal with problems openly, the problems are only going to get worse.”
Matthews said that for the last 14 or 15 years, students who were school discipline problems were being transferred to the court in high numbers, basically feeding into a prison pipeline.
“What we’ve been doing clearly isn’t working,” Matthews said. “I’ve grown convinced that sending children to court for fistfights is a mistake. ... They get desensitized” and criminal charges are no longer a deterrent.
“We want to discipline children,” he said. “We don’t want to throw them away.”
He emphasized that the school system knows more than the court does about family problems and other factors influencing the children’s lives, and the agreement gives schools the flexibility to address those problems.
“The mindset is, you’ve got two victims: the perpetrator and the person wronged in the criminal incident,” Davis said.
Board Vice President Susan Middleton said it is a positive situation for the school system to work with local agencies through the agreement. Collaboration among the agencies in general is one of the school system’s strengths noted in the report.
“That collaboration is very important to me,” she said.
Board member Tom Hudson also spoke in favor of the agreement.
Working with students with disciplinary issues requires a comprehensive, multi-agency approach, he said.
“Our kids have multiple needs,” Hudson said. “The school system cannot deal with every issue alone.”
The agreement is modeled after a similar program Clayton County implemented in 2004.
Since then, there have been 70 percent fewer weapons reported on campus, an 87 percent decrease in fights and a 20 percent increase in the graduation rate, according to the Advancement Project, a school civil rights organization.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225. To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 744-4331.