Blog Entry | July 23, 2018

"A Look at the Juvenile Code"

Is it working? What needs to be improved? What should we do next? These are critical questions to ask after a law or policy is passed or an impact lawsuit is won. There is much to be learned from investigating how a policy change or court decision is being implemented, what additional fixes are needed, and what is working.

Georgia Appleseed and pro bono attorneys and professionals from thirteen law firms and organizations embarked on this task over the last year by assessing Georgia's Juvenile Code. The Code was passed in 2013 and went into effect January 1, 2014. The advocacy for the new Code started long before its passage through the JUSTGeorgia Coalition, which included Georgia Appleseed, the Barton Child Center for Law and Policy, and Voices for Georgia's Children.

Our recently released Assessment of the Juvenile Code is entitled: "Embracing Common Wisdom." Much of the Code is working as intended, but there are parts of the Code that need improved implementation. The report also includes stakeholder input on two other important issues (Appendix C): shackling of children and the age of children who are included in the "juvenile delinquency" provisions of the Code. You can read the report here.

A critical finding in our Assessment is that there are significant differences in how the Children in Need of Services (CHINS) provisions of the Juvenile Code are being implemented. This has caused stakeholders to differ on whether CHINS is working well. The purpose of CHINS was to separate certain offenses, such as truancy, running away, and curfew violations, from more serious offenses. Children involved in these cases were to be provided more community services and less punitive measures, such as detention. Examples of such services could include: risk reduction programs, anger management, counseling, and mentoring. (A 2017 Barton Center presentation on CHINS can be found here, which includes examples of diversion programs from Forsyth and Cherokee Counties). Our Assessment found the success of CHINS is dependent on the resources and services available in a specific community. There is also a need for better coordination of CHINS services across the state.

Successful implementation of CHINS is critical for many of our state's children to receive the supports they need before becoming more seriously involved in the justice system. The good news is that work has begun to improve CHINS implementation. Funding was appropriated for a Statewide CHINS Coordinator in the recent session of the General Assembly. The Council of Juvenile Court Judges is currently seeking the right person for this position. More work and resources are needed to implement CHINS and the Juvenile Code. Georgia Appleseed will continue its advocacy along with its partners to ensure successful implementation for Georgia's children.

Talley Wells
Executive Director

Blog Entry | Guest Edition: May 23, 2018

Guest entry from Staff Attorney, Terrence Wilson:

"A Look at School Safety"


As I was in the process of creating this blog post to share, news broke of yet another school shooting in Texas. Although we are less than half way through the year, there have already been over 20 shootings at schools across the country. Now, more than ever, it is vital for advocates, parents and communities to work together to create ways to ensure that children can spend more time focused on schoolwork and less time afraid for their safety.

Feeling this same sentiment, the Georgia General Assembly has decided to increase focus on school safety. They approved $16 million dollars in bonds that can be used on school safety equipment like cameras and metal detectors, and have decided to study the issue in depth over the break between legislative sessions. To perform this vital task, the Georgia House of Representatives created the “House Study Committee on School Security” (via HR1414, 2018), and the Georgia Senate created the “Senate School Safety Study Committee” (via SR 935, 2018). The House study committee held its first meeting on May 14, and Speaker of the House David Ralston attended and charged the members to identify ways to improve safety that go beyond solely adding money to the schools’ safety budgets.

To that end there are several different strategies that can be utilized to impact school safety including investment in the amount of school safety equipment (metal detectors/cameras) and personnel (school resource officers), but the method that Georgia Appleseed believes is most crucial is focusing on school safety by improving school climate.

The theory underlying this belief is that students know the most about what is happening in their school environment with their peers, and that information can only be relayed to protect the school if there are good relationships in that school environment between students and other adults in the building. Encouragingly, our partners over at the Georgia Department of Education believe the same thing and have focused millions of dollars on school climate improvement by training schools on how to implement Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). In fact, over half of Georgia Schools have been trained in PBIS and Georgia is now among the top 5 in all states in the number of schools trained in school-wide PBIS.

As the number of PBIS schools has increased, the number of students receiving out of school suspensions has decreased and statewide graduation rates have increased. The importance of school climate is also reflected in two pieces of legislation that GA Appleseed supported at the Legislature during the 2018 legislative session. HB 740 limits suspension and expulsion of pre-k through third grade students before the school provides certain assessments and supportive interventions while HB 763 adds school climate improvement to the responsibility of school attendance protocol committees that operate in every county across the state. Both pieces of legislation were signed by the Governor, reflecting the importance of school climate at the highest levels of Georgia’s government. As efforts to increase school safety continue over the upcoming year, it will be vital to remember preventative interventions like PBIS and School Climate improvement as a method to keep our children safe and thriving in school.

In Service & Solidarity,

Blog Entry | April 4, 2018

Georgia Appleseed is built on "the power of pro bono."

Over the last twelve years, lawyers have given their time, their talents, and their expertise to our projects. With a staff of seven, Georgia Appleseed can only accomplish its mission with this vital support.

I recently met with a law partner who led his firm's pro bono work on two of our projects. He was proud of the work he and his firm had done. He told great stories about what he learned from the interviews he conducted with stakeholders. He also made clear that the passion and persuasion Georgia Appleseed Founding Executive Director Sharon Hill brought to the projects motivated lawyers to get involved. She believed in the projects and that was infectious. On the evening of April 18th, we will honor Sharon Hill at our Good Apple Event.

As we prepare our next pro bono projects, we take seriously the value and importance of the time lawyers and other professionals provide. We are also fortunate that Sharon's passion has infected us. We plan to continue to infect others.

In my seventeen years working at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, I repeatedly saw injustices my clients were experiencing at a systemic level. I worked hard to make a difference for each of my clients. Often, I saw, though, that real change would only come through law and policy reform. We rely on pro bono attorneys and other professionals to help us build the case for change through our projects. It is the only way we can continue our work to resolve "injustices that no one should endure."

We hope you will join us on April 18! We will celebrate all that Sharon and Georgia Appleseed accomplished over the last twelve years. The applause that night will not only be for Sharon, though. It will also be for all of the lawyers and professionals who gave their time and talents to make these accomplishments happen.


Blog Entry | Feb 28, 2018

How often is your local school suspending its kids?

You can find out by school district, school, gender, grade, race, and special education status on the Georgia Appleseed website. Through a partnership with the Georgia Department of Education, we provide easy-to-read charts showing out-of-school suspension data for every school and school district across the state. We are grateful to Ernst & Young for its pro bono work updating the data for the last school year.

As an attorney, I represented children in tribunal hearings when they faced long-term suspensions or expulsions. I would sit in the waiting room with the worried child and parent knowing that the child's future was at stake.

Suspending and expelling children leads to ever-compounding problems. The children may get into worse trouble out of school, fall further behind, and cause difficulties for parents who have to miss work. This is particularly true when a child is repeatedly or permanently sent home.

While it is easy to see the problems with suspensions, it is much harder to determine an alternative solution. After all, teachers and students need safe and healthy learning environments.

Georgia Appleseed has worked with education leaders, advocates, and school systems to develop evidence-based approaches to behavioral interventions that both work and that keep kids in school. Our Keeping Kids in Class Toolkit provides an array of resources for schools, school systems, families, and advocates.

"School Climate Change" is the key tool in our Toolkit. School climate is the overall atmosphere of a school based on safety, teaching, learning, interpersonal relationships, and the environment of the physical building. A positive school climate leads to reductions in dropout rates, incidences of violence, and out-of-school suspensions. A positive school climate simultaneously leads to improvements in teacher retention and student achievement.

The Georgia Education Climate Coalition (GECC), which Georgia Appleseed convenes and facilitates, is a group of state education leaders and advocates working to improve school climate across the state. GECC has worked to encourage schools and school systems to embrace and implement an evidence-based approach to school climate called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS).

The Georgia Department of Education is leading the way in helping school systems across the state implement PBIS with ever-increasing fidelity. The Department of Education provides comprehensive training for schools and school districts on PBIS, school climate ratings, a tiered fidelity inventory, and other resources. You can find school climate ratings for schools across the state here.

I recently witnessed the impact PBIS is making. Georgia Appleseed worked with the Bibb County School System (Macon) to adopt PBIS. Now, every school in the county is using PBIS. Just this year, the school system has experienced remarkable progress with a drop in disciplinary referrals year-to-date from 7,719 in December 2016 to 4,617 in December 2017.

As Georgia Appleseed moves forward, we will be looking for ways we can build on these successes. We will work to help schools, families, and advocates provide the supports necessary for children whose behaviors may arise due to specific impairments or experiences, such as behavioral health disorders, autism, or trauma.

Check back every month to read about our progress with PBIS and to stay updated on all of our projects.