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Stopping the cycle
Parent group ruffles feathers with hard-line approach

Claudette, as she wishes to be called, uprooted from Boston two years ago to immerse her son and daughter in a school system whose top-flight reputation lured her from 1,100 miles away.

After frustrating bouts with Gwinnett Public Schools' disciplinary system, Claudette says she's reconsidering the merits of that move.

Claudette's son, a 15-year-old freshman at GIVE East, an interventional school for students with disciplinary issues, spent last year "on the street" following his expulsion from South Gwinnett for carrying a razor blade in his backpack. She maintains the blade was a tool her son, a budding barber, used to "line up" his young customers' hairlines.

A school disciplinary panel - with records of the youth's past classroom outbursts and clashes with authority - ruled otherwise, she says.

The expulsion booted Claudette's son out of school for a year without services. No bus, no friends, no organized discipline, she says. She paid $950 to have two semesters worth of home-schooling materials shipped in from Pennsylvania.

In the interim, a psychologist diagnosed Claudette's son with bipolar disorder, marking the first possible explanation she'd heard for her son's unruliness. The problem, she says, should have been detected earlier.

"This (expulsion) was a rough, rough penalty. Nobody is stopping to listen to these children," said Claudette, 45, a certified nursing assistant. "I know the kids have to be punished, but when you put children on the street, it's not helping."

Claudette's story typifies the frustrations many parents of troubled Gwinnett teens face, according to a parent group critical of the school system's zero-tolerance policies, broad-stroke suspensions and the general "over-criminalization" of students, group leaders say. (School administrators maintain that current disciplinary code addresses each disruptive student in a fair, consistent manner).

Calling themselves the Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline, the parent-driven group formed last March as an outspoken watchdog of school procedures and statistics. They're anchored in the belief that the root of student troubles are too often overlooked, that troubled kids are too often booted to alternative schools or, worse, the judicial system.

"We felt like it was something we should initiate in Gwinnett," said Marlyn Tillman, one of four co-founders. "There's no accountability to make sure the problem in the first place is being addressed."

The coalition - backed by groups such as the Gwinnett branch of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia - strives for a transparency of school data, often in face-to-face meetings with school leaders and via community workshops.

"Educators and administrators are wonderful people for the most part," said Jennifer Falk, education chair for Gwinnett's NAACP branch, and a coalition co-founder. "They don't want to believe the school system is contributing to the (prison) pipeline process."

School opposition

Not everyone is thrilled with the coalition's audacity.

"The very name of the (coalition) is degrading to teachers and educators who work diligently to educate students," said J. Alvin Wilbanks, Gwinnett Public Schools superintendent.

As a district, Wilbanks contends, "we've invested in numerous behavior and academic interventions to help all of our students - including students who have had discipline problems and who may attend alternative schools - succeed."

Wilbanks maintains the discipline code he presides over is fair and consistent. He scoffs at the notion that problematic students are "rubber-stamped" to prison systems.

The school system has a standing agreement with the Gwinnett District Attorney's Office outlining certain offenses that must be reported to prosecutors. It's left to the discretion of the DA's office to decide which crimes merit jail time, Wilbanks said.

Sloan Roach, Gwinnett Public Schools spokeswoman, said those offenses run a gamut of misbehavior, from carrying toy guns or phony drugs at school, to committing arson or having sex on school grounds.

Coalition leaders insist some offenses deemed criminal are downright petty, and oftentimes subjective. They point to 170 plus infractions that can land students in alternative schools, known as "pre-prisons" in coalition parlance.

"We are criminalizing our children for normal adolescent behavior, and it has long-lasting implications," said co-founder Bill Roston, an education advocate with Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. "There's an over-criminalization going on."

Future trends

Studies have shown a link between disability and delinquency.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, seven of every 10 children in the juvenile justice system nationwide has some kind of educational disability. Children with emotional disturbance, or ED, are three times more likely to be arrested before leaving school than their peers, the group has found.

That trend is reflected locally, and perhaps unjustly so, coalition leaders claim.

Though 11 percent of Gwinnett students are considered special education, they account for about 27 percent of all disciplinary panels in 2007-08, according to the group.

That said, school data reflects a decrease of roughly 17 percent in total disciplinary panels the last two school years. The rate of in-school suspensions - used as an alternative to paneling - rose 10 percent in that time span.

Coalition leaders point to troublesome "cultural miscues" between students and teachers of diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, but school figures show a sizable decrease (10 percent) in the number of minority students paneled the last two years.

Male students and ninth-graders continue to be suspended more than other groups, which is consistent with national trends in public schools, according to James Taylor, director of the school system's department of academic support.

Roston stressed that each person living or working locally should have a vested interest in seeing positive outcomes from children reared in Gwinnett schools, regardless of their background or ability.

The future, he feels, could depend on it.

"They're promoting Gwinnett as a technological hub of the future," Roston said. "One of the things you need is a highly educated work force. How do you have that when half of your kids aren't graduating high school?

"This conversation is one that ought to be of importance to every single member of our community."