Four students at Northeast High School sat in a circle, passing around a beanbag.
The day before, the students had fought in the middle of the hallway, a riot breaking out around them. Another student had recently been killed in a drive-by shooting, and three male students had lashed out at a female classmate wearing a shirt with the victim’s face on it.
In the past, the students might have been suspended or arrested. This time, though, the school principal convened a peace circle, a restorative justice practice that addresses conflict through conversation, with an emphasis on healing.
As the students spoke, supervisors eyed them closely, waiting for a blowup. But it never came.
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The meeting ended in a group hug.
Peace circles are just one aspect of the Macon-Bibb County School-Justice Partnership Agreement, which launched this August to divert students who commit low-level offenses from the criminal justice system. Modeled after a widely successful program in Clayton County, the new initiative aims to tackle the root causes of juvenile delinquency, rather than resort automatically to suspension, expulsion or arrest.
“I’m not trying to erase their personal accountability for their actions. I’m not trying to do that,” said David Cooke, district attorney of the Macon Judicial Court. “I think we still have to hold people accountable. But a lot of times, we have to back up and see how they got from point A to point B.”
Over 200 criminal charges were filed at Bibb County schools between Aug. 1, 2017 and March 31, 2018, a recent Telegraph investigation found. And school charges comprise just a small percentage of overall adolescent misconduct.
Nearly 700 teenagers faced arrest and over 750 were suspected of crimes in 2017, according to a Bibb County Sheriff’s Office report. As of Oct. 16, 468 teens had been arrested and 632 had been suspects in criminal cases so far this year.
Local leaders are determined to find out.
Changing the culture
Clayton County Juvenile Judge Steven Teske instituted the nation’s first school-justice partnership in 2003, hoping to curb juvenile crime and increase graduation rates. Since then, at least 20 school districts across the country have adopted the model.
Between 2003 and 2018, Clayton County’s average daily population in juvenile detention fell 75 percent, according to the juvenile court’s fiscal 2018 annual report. Less than one percent of youth diverted to alternative programs were rearrested before their court case closed.
The district’s graduation rate, on the other hand, has increased, from 58 percent in 2003 to 69.6 percent this past school year.
Teske attributes the program’s success to changes in culture. Juvenile justice reform isn’t just about the kids, he said. Adults also play a role.
“We had to change our culture, our norms, our behaviors as adults,” Teske said. “School climate isn’t going to increase by getting rid of chronically disruptive Johnny. It’s going to get better if we have adults who do better at how they interact with kids.”
Sometimes adults grow so frustrated with youth’s behavior that they give up on them, Teske said.
“I still see too many local systems that throw kids away because the kids make them mad, instead of trying to help them by identifying why they are behaving in such a way,” Teske said.
School-justice partnerships provide an alternative. School staff, parents and law officers can work together to target the source of students’ misconduct and help them to make better choices in the future.
In many cases, what students need most is counseling from a caring adult.
The majority of youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system have been diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder. As many as 90 percent have experienced at least one traumatic event. And the traumas they suffer at home often bleed into their behavior at school, Teske said.
“Traumatized people traumatize people,” Teske said. “Hurting people hurt people, OK. And it’s not going to stop until we help these kids to get control of what’s hurting them.”
Breaking the cycle
Cooke thinks of adolescent crime like a cake.
“As long as we have the same ingredients, we’re going to keep baking the same cake,” Cooke said. “And so, what I’m trying to do is have different ingredients so we end up with a different cake.”
Schools across the country adopted zero tolerance policies toward the end of the 20th century, in response to surges in juvenile crimes. Nationwide, juvenile arrest rates have been on the decline since those policies took effect in the mid-1990s, falling more than 70 percent between 1996 and 2017.
School suspensions in Bibb County, however, have crept up in the past five years, rising from 12.1 percent in 2012 to 15.4 percent in 2017.
Hoping to try a more progressive approach to juvenile justice in Bibb County, the district attorney reached out to Teske.
Over the course of a year, school and law officials developed an agreement to rehabilitate juveniles who commit low-level offenses in school outside of the traditional criminal justice system.
“Kids are still held accountable,” Cooke said. “It’s just a matter of distinguishing between the kids that we’re scared of and the kids that we’re mad at.”
If a student commits a felony on school grounds, Cooke said, he or she would not qualify for the program. However, less serious infractions, like disorderly conduct or simple assault, would not warrant arrest, as they might have in the past.
Those students are first screened and connected with community resources, such as mental health counseling. Then, they’re diverted to programs that target the roots of their misconduct.
“We’re looking at these cases from the outset with an eye towards: What is the underlying issue and how do we coordinate services for these kids?” Cooke said, adding, “We’re not only addressing crime and the safety of our community, but the health of our community.”
If kids don’t get the help they need, their misbehavior can follow them into adulthood, Cooke said.
“We want to break the cycle of these things repeating,” he said. “We want to, at some point, work on, you know, building these strong kids so that they’ll be strong adults.”
‘It takes a village’
Schools and law officials, alone, can’t eradicate juvenile crime. Once class lets out, after-school programs can provide a safe haven for students looking for extra support.
Former NFL player Roger Jackson tells his after-school students at the Motivating Youth Foundation in east Macon that education is the key to their future.
Their only chance at success, he says, is to get the most they can out of school.
“You can’t go to school just to eat lunch. You know, you can’t go to school just to wear your new clothes as a fashion show,” Jackson said. “At the end of the day, what did you learn today?”
That knowledge will determine their fate, he said.
Jackson spends two hours a day, Monday through Thursday, with five- to 14-year-olds who want a safe space to do homework, eat snacks and spend time with friends. Since 2009, hundreds of students have passed their evenings at the Macon Housing Authority’s Family Investment Center, reading books and puzzling through math problems together.
But they get more than homework help, Jackson said. Jackson’s students know they can come to him for anything.
Trouble arises when kids in need don’t ask for help, he said. Jackson wants his students to know he’s there for them, no matter what. And he tries to relate to them in an honest way, so his message won’t get lost in translation.
“We have to try to find a way to break that barrier of a line of communication,” he said.
And Jackson isn’t alone.
In addition to programs through the Bibb County School District, after-school programs through local organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Georgia and Next Level Macon work to steer kids in the right direction.
The crime rate goes up when communities let kids fall through the cracks, Jackson said.
“They always say it takes a village to raise our kids,” he said. “You know, we need to all pitch in.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group, The health of our community. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.