After a pattern of behavioral misconduct, students in the Gwinnett County Public Schools system are often sent to the Gwinnett Intervention Education (GIVE) Center East. Located on Hi Hope Road just off State Route 316, the alternative school sits directly across from the Gwinnett County Department of Corrections.
Students enter through a metal detector with clear backpacks, the bell rings at 7:05 a.m. and they are dismissed at the end of the day one-by-one. Black boys with developmental disabilities are disproportionately represented in the center’s enrollment data.
A growing group of parents, advocates and students in Gwinnett say that the center is teaching kids how to go to prison.
The center is part of the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support (GNETS) system. The 24 psycho educational programs – or GNETS – serve more than 3,000 students with behavioral, intellectual and neurological disorders. An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows that Georgia schools also send disproportionate numbers of African American students, especially those with behavior problems, to the programs.
In 2011, a class action lawsuit was filed in federal court alleging that the State of Georgia has discriminated against thousands of public school students with disabilities by providing them with a separate and unequal education via GNETS. The lawsuit stated that the schools were denying GNETS students the opportunity to be educated with students without disabilities, thus violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
According to a fact sheet provided by the Center for Public Representation, students in the GNETS program cannot access the basic credits they need to earn a diploma, resulting in a high school graduation rate of only 10% (compared to a statewide rate of 80%).
On a rainy Saturday in October, the Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School-to-Prison Pipeline (Gwinnett SToPP) hosted an interactive awareness workshop at Georgia Gwinnett College as part of the National Week of Action Against School Pushout. A group of over 30 community members, including high school students, a state house candidate for District 106, Rebecca Mitchell, and a former EMT training to become a special educator, spent the morning reckoning with schools’ discipline policies and the inequity that has become a clear national trend.
Gwinnett SToPP formed in 2007 to lead a parent-driven, community-centered partnership approach to dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline in Gwinnett County. Its mission is to build and strengthen relationships with the community in two constructive ways – parent/community advocacy training and policy-change facilitation.
The school-to-prison pipeline is the funneling of children from the public school system into the juvenile and criminal justice systems, in part, due to zero-tolerance school discipline policies and practices; disproportionate application of student suspensions; high-stakes testing; and administrative practices that adversely affect children of color, poor children and children with learning disabilities or learning differences.
Marlyn Tillman, executive director and co-founder of Gwinnett SToPP, likened the dismissal process at the GIVE Center to prison visiting hours. At the event, she explained that alternative schools and the removal from critical learning environments often have an adverse effect on children.
“We hate it,” said Tillman. “There are kids there who may need a different learning environment, but to put it in the words a student said, I don’t think it should be teaching kids how to go to jail.”
Attendees asked questions and heard answers from youth and experts at the workshop, which was part of a series of events called “From Lockers to Lockdown.” Gwinnett SToPP is fighting for equity in the county’s education system through data accountability, advocacy and policy reform, with the help of a grant from the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD).
The goal of this project is to expand and leverage the existing grassroots, community-based coalition, managed by Gwinnett SToPP and the Interfaith Children’s Movement (ICM), to develop and implement a plan to reduce the number of African American males in special education classes who are at risk of being pushed out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Because of its placement at a critical juncture of development and education, the upshot of the school-to-prison pipeline is especially harmful: affected youth find it harder to socialize, get jobs and live a fulfilling life. The over-representation of kids with developmental disabilities in the data compounds these issues. It can be hard for parents to navigate school discipline and special education supports. And, these policies have a material effect on the children within the county school system.
Still, Tillman sees a unique cultural moment right now. America isn’t working for all of its citizens, and people are more cognizant of systemic problems. Her group looks at the issue through a racial lens, including the way students with disabilities are singularly impacted.
“That’s the foundation-level of our work with GCDD,” said Tillman, “That was how our white parents joined us so freely. The privilege dropped off for them.”
“It’s hard as a parent,” she said later. “I want to protect my baby. I want them to think the world is theirs.”
A group of four Grayson High School students, Isaiah Thompson, Faith Ebikeme, Mojola Oshikanlu and Goodness Dauda, participated in the workshop. In a group conversation, they agreed that their value in the eyes of administrators was conditional and noted that the lack of nuance behind zero-tolerance discipline policy is harmful to the development of their peers.
“I’m very appreciative of what Gwinnett has given me … but at the same time you’re hurting students,” said Thompson, a talented 17-year-old student at Grayson who began working with Gwinnett SToPP last year and found a mentor in Tillman. “We’re trying to take all the information we get from this [event] and bring it back to our own school.”