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AJC CONTINUING COVERAGE EDUCATION; Gwinnett parents seek end to police in public schools

A parent-led grassroots organization has called for the removal of school resource officers from Gwinnett County Public Schools.

In an open letter sent recently to Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanksandboardmembers, Marlyn Tillman, co-founder of the Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School-to-Prison Pipeline, said that daily police presence in schools leads to overly harsh discipline and doesn't necessarily make schools safer.

"Instead, GCPS should hire counselors, restorative justice practitioners, and community intervention workers full time to maintain a peaceful learning environment. Students should feel emotionally safe to learn and make mistakes," she wrote. "We know that armed personnel pose a safety threat to students and other school staff, and there is no evidence they make schools safer."

The school board briefly discussed the demands of the nonprofit group in between the regularly scheduled work session and business meeting Thursday.

"I remember how hard we fought to get the SROs in the schools," said District 3 member Mary Kay Murphy.

District 1 member Carole Boyce cited incidents of school shootings in Colorado and Florida as reasons why school police are necessary.

Wilbanks said there is no way the school system would do away with the police force. He read a prepared statement and asked the board if they agreed with it.

"Our school resource officers play an important role in keeping our schools safe. They are highly respected and appreciated and have been lauded time and again -- by parents, our community, and professional organizations -- for the outstanding jobs they do. In addition to ensuring schools are safe and orderly, they develop and improve relationships with students through mentoring and counseling, and educate students and school communities about safety issues. Their presence in our schools is a reassuring and affirming sign to our students, parents, and staff that Gwinnett County Public Schools takes school safety seriously, and we have no intention of doing away with this program," he read.

Four of the five board members nodded in agreement, but District 4 member Everton Blair urged them to look at it from a minority perspective.

"I can't co-sign that," he said shaking his head.

"This issue is rife with opinions and we owe it to our constituents to at least explore them." During the comment period of the business meeting, several people addressed the issue through an online app.

Laura Gray, a sixth-year computer science teacher from Gwinnett, agreed that the role of school police officers should be discussed.

"We should focus on preventative measures instead of punitive ones," she said.

Sheri Mitchell, a Gwinnett parent, didn't think it was a good idea to do away with school police. "Don't let a few bad eggs make you scrap the program," she said. "[The school police] are mostly helpful and do a lot of good. I don't want our schools to be sitting ducks."

In a telephone interview with The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, encouraged school systems to avoid "knee-jerk" reactions to what's going on across the country. He's had other school systems tell him that they're looking at cutting back or doing away with school police.

"But with students spending a fourth of the school year at home last year, come this fall there may be situations that call for officer presence," he said.

Gwinnett parent Tina Mitchum suggested the timing wasn't right for change. "We don't know how students will come back to school and it's probably not a good idea to make those kind of changes right now," she said. But, she said, some treatment of students by the officers is too harsh.

"I've seen [school police] walk kids out of the school in handcuffs," she said. "That will be detrimental to their growth and development. When they're back in the community those kids will forever bear those scars."

The article was published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on July 1, 2020.