Editorial: Schools and Juvenile Court must work together

Frustrated public schools officials say there are inadequate services and few consequences for local youth exhibiting extreme criminal and violent behaviors. That spells double-trouble for the community.

 

In the wake of the July 4 violence in the City Market area, which began when a carload of young gang members allegedly shot into a crowd of people on the sidewalk, addressing these kids in crisis and solving the problems associated with violence and young people must become a higher public priority for the school district and the Juvenile Court.

That means a greater degree of involvement by the public school system, the campus and Metro police departments and the local and state juvenile justice systems.

Access to a good education is critical to reducing criminal activity among young people. A good education provides better access to opportunities and good-paying jobs, which are ways to escape grinding poverty and the lure of crime – especially selling drugs to make a fast buck.

Unfortunately, too many children, for a number of reasons, are making extremely poor decisions about their lives. And it’s not always a case of poor parenting. Some young people who get into trouble come from loving and supportive families.

But at the very least, the public school system and the Juvenile Court system must do a better job of working together for the good of all young people and for a safer Savannah.

“We have to make a decision about what we do when kids are underage and engaging in violent and extreme criminal behavior,” Savannah-Chatham Public Schools Superintendent Ann Levett said. “Clearly they shouldn’t be in a regular school setting or even an alternative school with non-violent behavior students. I don’t think there is a suitable solution for those kinds of students at this point.”

Teachers and school administrators were outraged after learning the names of the young suspects involved in the tragic July 4 shooting and fatal police chase downtown. Many knew them as students and raised concerns that problem behaviors in the past went unchecked or improperly addressed because the community doesn’t have systems to adequately handle children in a severe psychological, behavioral or mental health crisis. Juveniles who commit egregious acts are often ordered to return back to school because court officials argue that school is a better alternative to home study or the streets.

But overwhelmed teachers say the needs of students with extreme behaviors are greater than what the public schools are equipped to provide.

“We all agree that children with violent and criminal behavior need a second chance and an education. But you have to understand where our teachers are coming from,” Dr. Levett said. “The traditional and alternative schools in our system are equipped to handle kids who use profanity, get caught drinking or smoking or get into a playground fight. But shooting and running people over is not something sessions with a social worker between classes can resolve.”

The need for better solutions became blatantly clear just after midnight on July 4, when a white SUV pulled alongside a group of people in City Market and opened fire. Three people were wounded. The SUV later crashed during a police chase, striking six pedestrians near the busy Barnard Street intersection and killing Scott Waldrup, 30. Two passengers in the suspect vehicle died in the fatal July 5 crash - Gabriel Magulias, 20, and Spencer Stuckey, 17. The driver, 17-year-old Jerry Chambers, was charged with three counts of felony murder.

Many in the community were outraged to learn that this wasn’t the first local shooting incident that Chambers was embroiled in. In June of 2016, he turned himself in after being named as a suspect in an armed robbery and shooting of a 63-year-old woman at Savannah Mall. Chambers was 16 at the time. The case was ultimately tried in Juvenile Court and the charges were reduced because of a lack of evidence. Court officials say the case was weak and resulted in a not guilty verdict.

Frustrated teachers said they were outraged when Chambers walked away from the shooting case and returned to public school. At the same time, they should know that people are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. After the mall shooting case fell apart, Chambers was placed at the Building Bridges Alternative High School. Two months after the mall shooting incident he agreed to be interviewed for a Savannah Morning News story about the district’s revamped alternative school services. The interview was eye-opening.

Chambers said he had also attended the old Scott Learning Center alternative school before it closed in 2012, but nothing he experienced there helped him stay on track behaviorally or academically. The district’s new programs did much more to address academic and behavior issues, he said.

“I’m getting back on track. I’m not there yet,” he said in 2016. “But I’m trying and they’re helping me.”

The school district must pull the plug on programs that aren’t working and spend its precious resources on programs that work.

Meanwhile, many school employees lament what they perceive as Chatham County Juvenile Court’s soft stance on young offenders. That’s troubling, as it can send the wrong message to law-breakers.

In the days following the July 4 violence, several school principals complained that students have been arrested for violent acts - from shootings to severe beatings - only to get out on bail and return to school the next day. Some principals say they have been chastised by the court for seeking to expel students or enroll them in alternative or flexible learning environments.

The judges in Juvenile Court — Presiding Judge LeRoy Burke III, Judge Lisa Goldwire Colbert and Judge Thomas Cole — must be made aware of the concerns that public school officials have and not make court decisions in a vacuum.

They should know that young criminals who have exhibited dangerous behavior should not be placed in situations where they may endanger themselves or others or ruin the learning environment for others.

Judges also must avoid creating the impression that there are no consequences for committing crimes or that a young age automatically excuses bad behavior.

It’s time to destroy the corrupt influence that gangs have on the lives of too many young people in our area. The public schools and the Juvenile Court are good places to begin to turn things around.

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Wed, 07/26/2017 - 7:56am

Letters to the editor Wednesday