Atlanta Schools Start Over With Police
District hires own officers
A fight had been brewing between two girls at Grady High School and was on the verge of erupting in the cafeteria. Willette Barr, one of Grady's school resource officers, and her partner Derrick Hammond, stepped in to intervene. In her rage, one of the girls started swinging at Hammond, an action that in other schools—and almost certainly on the street—would have been met forcefully by the two officers and may have led to the girl's arrest.
Instead, Barr and Hammond stayed calm.
Along with a Grady assistant principal, Barr—who previously worked as a county sheriff's deputy—sat with the two girls to talk through what happened. And why.
It took some digging, but Barr and the school administrator uncovered the root of their squabble. Both girls' families were living in the same homeless shelter, and one of them, who had lived there longer, saw herself in the role of big sister. The other girl, however, was overwhelmed by the attention.
The students explained that if they got into trouble, their families would be asked to leave the shelter, raising the stakes of the fight even higher for school officials, who spent several hours helping them resolve their conflict.
Barr's approach—talking with the girls to ease the friction, rather than disciplining them—is an integral part of the Atlanta school district's comprehensive plan to improve school climate for its 51,000 students. That plan includes forming its own police force, hiring 68 new school resource officers like Barr, and providing ongoing training about how to work in a school environment. The officers have been taught things Barr didn't learn in her more traditional law enforcement training, like how the teenage brain develops and how to interact with students to resolve conflicts.
"My expectation is for them to be who they are, and that's kids," Barr said.
The district's new police department is the first step in Atlanta's efforts to confront a challenge many urban school systems have not easily tackled: concerns that putting police in schools undermines efforts to create a safe and supportive learning environment, and that their presence too often leads schools to treat routine student misbehavior in a criminal manner.
While Atlanta's plans have already brought big changes to how policing looks in the school system, they don't adhere to what some national civil rights groups have called for, which is much tighter restrictions on officers' interactions with students or removing them from schools all together. Mediating conflicts and mentoring students are better left to school counselors and other school staff without arresting authority, those groups argue.
The district's school-climate strategy focuses on teaching students social-emotional skills such as tactics for controlling their behavior and emotions and forming strong relationships with peers. District leaders have also embraced the use of conflict resolution techniques and restorative practices to drive down the numbers of students who get suspended. There's a court-diversion program that uses community outreach and mentoring to address some student behavior issues. And leaders plan to closely track data to monitor whether school climate is actually getting better.
Anchoring that strategy is a five-year, $7.5 million grant from the National Institute of Justice that pairs the district with researchers from WestEd and Georgia State University to design and evaluate a comprehensive school safety plan. Leaders of that work hope Atlanta can become a model for other districts.
Serious Safety Issues
It's a mammoth challenge. School climate initiatives revolve around trust between students, staff, parents, and teachers, and the confidence that Atlanta had in its city schools had frayed in recent years after a test-cheating scandal that led to criminal convictions for 11 teachers.
And it's not a small thing to ask Atlanta's student population—which is 76 percent black—to trust police officers in their schools when there's a pervasive distrust of law enforcement in many African-American communities. That concern has been exacerbated in the wake of multiple high-profile police shootings of unarmed African-Americans in recent years, Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said.
The Atlanta district had 29 school-related arrests and 31 referrals to law enforcement in 2013-14, the most recent federal civil rights data show. An Education Week Research Center analysis of that data shows that all of the arrested students were African-American while most of those referred to police were also black. No white students were arrested or referred to police.
When Carstarphen came to the district in July 2014, she identified improving its culture—including its policing strategy—as a major priority.
The safety issues the district faced were "like nothing I've ever seen," she said.
In 2013, for example, a Grady High student accidentally shot herself in the thigh after illegally carrying a gun on campus. In 2014, a driver used pepper spray to break up a fight between a group of high school students on a school bus. And in 2015, a student was critically injured and a passerby was wounded in a shooting near Grady High School's stadium after a football game. The researchers for WestEd outlined additional concerns.
The district's graduation rate was 71.1 percent, compared to 79 percent statewide in 2016, state data show. In the first three months of the 2014-15 school year, there were nearly 2,400 suspensions, both in-school and out-of-school, district data show, "and half were due to non-violent behavioral issues, such as disruptive behavior and student incivility," the researchers wrote in the grant application for the National Institute of Justice.
A 2012 audit found that 34 percent of students "indicated that classroom behaviors prevented their teachers from teaching so they could learn," the application said. And, in 2014, more than 30 percent of Atlanta's schools ranked as in need of improvement on Georgia's School Climate assessment. That assessment, compiled by the state department of education, factors in student survey responses, discipline data, and attendance data into its ratings. Schools that score a 1 or 2 on the five-point scale are considered below satisfactory levels, a designation given to about 15 percent of rated schools statewide that year.
Atlanta's district leaders had considered standing up their own police force before, not unusual for larger districts, including many that surround the city. Carstarphen supported that plan and decided it should be integrated into the district's bigger push for improving school climate.
Every interaction a student has before they reach the classroom—with bus drivers, with staff who greet them at the entrance to the school, with officers monitoring their campuses—can either "turn that kid up and make them frustrated and angry, or take the temperature down," Carstarphen said.
"I wanted to start it right," she said. "I wanted it to be built in a model that was about supporting, counseling, mentoring, helping, teaching, but also policing. …I wanted [students] leaving their school experience respecting an officer of the law but not fearing them in an unhealthy way where they're the enemy and they're here to get me."
Launching an in-house police department didn't come without blowback. It faced criticism from Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who said that he feared removing city officers from the schools would "make the children of the Atlanta school system far less safe," the Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported. For the city, it meant the end of a $5.6 million annual contract to place its police in district schools.
Atlanta school officials say their officers are equipped to keep schools safe. The district requires three years of law enforcement experience from prospective school resource officers, and many of those it has hired have experience working in school districts and in local police departments around the state. Some even previously worked in Atlanta schools or for other school-based agencies.
Ronald Applin, the district's police chief, is a former captain in the Fulton County Sheriff's Department. He said principals now have some say in which officers are placed in their schools, and that school resource officers will receive ongoing training on issues like how to interact with students and the district's approach to discipline. Atlanta's SROs are trained to take a preventative approach that has them talking with students on campus throughout the day to identify and solve problems in their early stages.
Autumn Koins, a senior at Grady, said she's noticed a difference in how the officers interact with students.
"They're not just there to be intimidating," she said.
Barr, one of Grady's SROs, once intervened in a dispute between Koins and a classmate.
"She wasn't saying, 'you do this or I'm going to do this,'" Koins said. "She said: 'You're better than this.'"
Officers focus much of their time on getting to know students and becoming friendly with them. When it comes to discipline, though, they are only supposed to be called to intervene in violent or potentially violent situations, a policy more clearly outlined in the new policing model, several city principals said.
"It's not only a shift for us; it's also a shift for our children," said Artesza Portee, the principal at Sylvan Hills Middle School. "So often they see law enforcement as people who will do harm to them."
Officers placed in schools should demonstrate that they want to work with students and receive special training to do so, said Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, which helped Atlanta with some training.
"It's such a unique environment," Canady said. "There's not another law enforcement assignment like that."
That's because students are still developing physically, emotionally, and psychologically, he said. Their impulse control isn't as strong as adults' and they often respond to confrontation differently. In Canady's training, officers learn that frontal lobes in the brains of teens and adolescents—which are responsible for behavior and control—don't finish developing until adulthood. He sometimes has to extend that session because of officers' interest in the subject, he said.
School-based officers must also be sensitive to the unique needs of students with disabilities, who may respond in ways that look defiant when they are really just overwhelmed with trying to process a situation, Canady said.
Which students are arrested most in school? Use our data tool to explore student arrest rates and referrals to law enforcement at national, state, and local levels.
An Education Week Research Center analysis of federal civil rights data show that the nationwide arrest and referral rates for students with disabilities are more than double that of the entire student population. Those disparities are magnified when they are students of color.
Solving Conflicts In-House
Students' sense of safety and belonging can have profound effects on how they do academically, said David Osher, who is vice president and institute fellow at the American Institutes for Research and the principal investigator of the National Center on Safe and Supportive Learning Environments.
"If you're not being treated fairly, if your perception is that people like you are punished disproportionately, it affects your short-term motivation, and it also affects your engagement in school," he said.
Researchers have found a host of negative outcomes associated with early interactions with the criminal justice system, from higher dropout rates to an increased chance of later incarceration.
Atlanta hopes to reduce students' contact with the justice system even more through a voluntary court diversion program modeled on Clayton County, Ga., juvenile court Judge Steven Teske's efforts, which have won praise from national civil rights groups. To reduce court referrals for students, Teske struck an agreement with Clayton County schools that students won't be the subject of criminal complaints for the first offense of "misdemeanor delinquent acts," like fighting or disrupting a school. Instead, they are referred to school-based conflict-resolution programs.
The Atlanta district signed onto a voluntary agreement with the Fulton County Juvenile Court last March, but it does not restrict the district from making criminal referrals for students. By signing on, however, school officials agreed to strive to channel misdemeanor offenses and delinquent acts through a tiered system of interventions rather than immediately filing court complaints.
That response plan includes verbal warnings and interventions like anger management classes. At the top tier of interventions, Atlanta officials are working with community organizations to find unique mentoring and learning experiences for students that correlate with their behavior, said Marquenta Sands Hall, the district's director of security.
Already this year, a school counselor took a student who was "acting tough" and getting into fights to visit a man at a hospital who'd been wounded by gunfire to show him what might happen if his behavior escalated, Sands Hall said.
"The majority of what we're dealing with are kids getting into what we call low-hanging fruit types of acts," she said. "But they are gateway types of acts, and we need to respond to them."
To comply with juvenile justice reforms the state passed in 2016, Atlanta’s agreement also more clearly outlines the role of school resource officers.
What Role Should Police Play?
To be sure, changes in school safety and discipline plans like Atlanta is embarking on aren't always smooth.
In some districts that have sought to introduce discipline alternatives, such as Los Angeles Unified, teachers and teachers' unions have complained that school leaders eliminated their ability to suspend students without committing enough resources to training them in new methods, such as restorative practices. The results, they say, have been chaotic learning environments in some schools. Some teachers in other areas have also expressed safety concerns after districts changed discipline approaches.
Verdaillia Turner, the president of the Atlanta Federation of Teachers, said the district's teachers are wary of programs and initiatives that have come and gone quickly in recent years.
"Children learn in spite of it," said Turner, who said she favors focusing money on community schools and student supports to address issues related to student poverty. That's a departure from the positions of some local teachers' unions in other areas, which have favored police presence in schools.
Like Turner, many national civil rights groups agree that school police should be restricted even more than they are in Atlanta. They argue for limitations even on casual interactions with students and keeping police out of common areas like cafeterias unless they are called to respond. Some favor removing police from schools entirely and spending the money instead on personnel like school counselors and social workers.
David Payne, a civil rights advocate and director of the Atlanta Community Engagement Team, said he understands the desire to keep police in Atlanta's schools, but he hopes that school climate work and improved relationships between students and adults will reduce the need for a law enforcement presence in the future.
Neighborhood and parent groups plan to monitor school discipline data as the district carries out its plans, he said.
Officer Kimberly Chamblee works at Sylvan Hills Middle School. She says it's important for her to "know all of the kids, not just the ones who have issues."
Sylvan Hills has a social-emotional learning period built into its schedule every day, and it uses peer mediation groups to address some student behavioral issues. Chamblee quickly adopted the approach by asking students about the cause of their behavior at the moment she intervenes.
Once, the officer asked a girl to throw away a bag of hot fries before she entered the building—a routine practice because junk food isn't allowed. When the girl resisted, Chamblee pulled the student aside to a private room, where she told the officer that her family shares a house with others, and children were stealing her food at night.
Chamblee took the girl to school staff, who ensured that she had food to take home.
"Everything doesn't have to be 'you're going to jail,' " Chamblee said.
Vol. 36, Issue 20, Pages 13-15Published in Print: February 8, 2017, as A New Start for Atlanta's School Police