Cobb school board candidates differ on armed officers, response to racism

The logo on front of a Cobb County School District facilityCobb County School District sign (photo by Larry Felton Johnson)

The South Cobb Council PTA hosted a candidate forum for the candidates running for Cobb County school board’s Post 7 Wednesday afternoon.

Lindsay Terrebonne, who serves on Kemp Elementary School’s council and is a Girl Scouts leader, is the Democratic candidate running to unseat Republican Brad Wheeler.

Wheeler is the current chairperson of the Cobb Board of Education and has been on the board for seven years.

Post 3 board member-elect Leroy “Tre” Hutchins was a special guest at Wednesday’s forum as well.

Hutchins will be taking the seat of current board member David Morgan, who is not running again after being on the board for 11 years.

At the forum, candidates discussed the role of police officers in Cobb schools, personal protective equipment and racial justice, among other topics.

Having armed police officers within Cobb schools was where candidates firmly separated their stances.

Terrebonne said she would like to have a community conversation on police within Cobb schools and ultimately, would “love to see us not have armed officers in the schools.”

Terrebonne said she wants to prevent the school to prison pipeline within Cobb.

The school to prison pipeline is where children — often children of color — in public schools face discipline that takes them out of school and into jails, criminalizing them at a young age.

Terrebonne said she does not want children to get arrested and that adults should be able to make sure students are safe.

Wheeler said that armed officers are needed in Cobb schools and praised the officers on school campuses.

He said Cobb schools were safe but then said armed officers are needed to combat gangs. He also said police are needed in the case of school shootings.

During the forum, Wheeler later continued and said officers within schools are protecting students and that teachers cannot act as police officers. He said officers are preventing crimes.

Terrebonne disagreed and cited the 2018 Parkland shooting, in which a school officer hid behind his vehicle while the shooting occurred.

“There’s a lot of data suggesting that even having police on campus does not necessarily prevent terrible things from happening,” Terrebonne said. “ … we need to question the actual effect that police officers are having on our school community and what is the benefit and what is the cost to our community.”

Terrebonne criticized Superintendent Chris Ragsdale’s decision to request $8.1 million of the money the district received from the coronavirus relief bill go toward the Cobb Teaching and Learning System software.

She said the money should go toward providing children with the technology they need for digital learning.

“There are kids that need a hotspot, there are kids that need tablets,” Terrebonne said. “ … chromebooks, printers … hand sanitizers, PPE, these things have been scarce recently and I think the last thing we need right now is a software platform.”

Wheeler said that providing PPE like masks and sanitizer to students and staff should be first priority for the $8.1 million.

He said the money should also go toward keeping teachers, citing millions in recent state cuts to public education.

Candidates were asked about the plans they had for protecting the mental health of students and teachers in school.

“Since March, we have literally went from pandemic to pandemonium overnight,” Hutchins said. “If COVID-19 wasn’t enough, we are now dealing with the death of Floyd and several others at the hands of police officers … our students have a lot to deal with at this moment.”

Hutchins said students need more social-emotional support and should hire school psychologists and more school counselors.

Wheeler said more guidance counselors should be hired and said he wished Georgia would fund guidance departments more.

For teachers, he spoke positively of the district pushing the school start date back and that it would be wise to offer them some kind of training or support.

Terrebonne expressed support for putting some of the $8.1 million toward getting students and teachers the mental care they need. She suggested pushing off milestone testing as one less stressor on students and teachers.

Terrebonne also said that many children have questions with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial justice movement that has occurred. She said trauma-informed practices should be in Cobb schools and that more school counselors should be hired.

When asked about how to support disabled students during the pandemic, Wheeler said the school district needs to follow the Individualized Education Programs and 504 plans.

He said the county could do better with regard to following these programs.

Terrebonne said that the county needs to ensure funding for students with disabilities actually goes to students with disabilities.

She said that there is talk of money meant for disabled students going toward a general fund and she believes it needs to be allocated to students with disabilities.

Moderators took questions from the audience and mentioned was the county school board’s tense Thursday, June 25, meeting.

During that meeting, Ragsdale would not say “Black lives matter” and a resolution condemning racism introduced by board member Randy Scamihorn was not passed by Cobb’s school board after a heated hour.

Moderators asked if candidates would say “Black lives matter” and if they would commit to board member Dr. Jaha Howard’s resolutioncondemning racism and addressing systemic racism in Cobb schools.

“Black lives matter — not the political movement — but all lives do matter,” Wheeler said. “Ahmaud [Arbery], George Floyd, Secoriea Turner, this is a pattern. We have a problem, we need to fix it. Black lives matter.”

Wheeler did not address the part about Howard’s resolution.

“Black lives matter. Period,” Terrebonne said. “The resolution, yes, there needs to be a resolution that we should put forth as a county … 60 percent of our students are Black and Brown students. They deserve to feel safe and empowered when they go to school.”

Terrebonne said she supports implicit bias training for teachers and stands with Howard and board member Charisse Davis in their attempts to implement policy addressing systemic racism in Cobb schools.

In the June primary election, Terrebonne received 603 more votes in her primary than Wheeler did in his primary.

Terrebonne receiving so many more votes may be an indication of Post 7 leaning toward the Democratic Party, leaving Wheeler among the most vulnerable of the school board incumbents.

If Terrebonne wins in November,Cobb’s seven-member school board would be majority Democrat.

Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 3.

Arielle Robinson is a student at Kennesaw State University. She also freelances for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and is the former president of KSU’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as well as a former CNN intern. She enjoys music, reading, and live shows.