By Rebecca Gaunt
This story was produced as part of a collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity and USA TODAY.
Just the threat of involving campus police was enough to send chills down Stephanie Aguirre’s spine on the day an administrator called to tell her that her 15-year-old autistic son had lashed out in class.
“I’m a parent. The last thing you want to hear involving a non-verbal autistic child is that you’ve contacted campus police or any type of police or you’ve filed a report with them. To me, it feels like a threat,” she said. Fortunately, school staff didn’t follow through on involving law enforcement, but the data shows she was right to be concerned.
Gabe is in a small class for intellectually-disabled students in a Cobb County high school. According to his mother, the COVID-19 pandemic has been really hard for him. He spent all last year at home and returned this year after being vaccinated. But so much interruption to routine led to aggressive behavior while he was out of school. Then she kept him home for several days in August as a precaution due to cold symptoms. When he returned to school, his teacher, who Aguirre speaks highly of, was out sick.
Aguirre and the teacher had recently worked out a reward plan for Gabe in which he could earn a Coke Zero. When Gabe completed a task for which he believed he had earned his reward, the classroom paraprofessional suggested waiting until snack time. Without the regular teacher there to intervene, Gabe reacted by getting aggressive and hitting.
“She’s [the teacher] got him. It is the untrained, other people surrounding her and possibly coming in and out of that classroom, and they were just kind of left to their own devices because this teacher was out,” Aguirre said.
Background from the Center for Public Integrity
A Center for Public Integrity analysis of U.S. Department of Education data from all 50 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico found that school policing disproportionately affects students with disabilities, Black children and, in some states, Native American and Latino children.
Nationwide, nearly 230,000 students were referred to law enforcement during the 2017-18 school year, the most recent data. Black students and students with disabilities were referred at nearly twice their share of the overall student population.
These disparities come despite years of mounting pressure on schools to stop policing kids.
“They’re criminalizing some ordinary behavior of students and they’re certainly disproportionately referring students of color to the juvenile justice system rather than disciplining them at school,” said Maura McInerney, legal director at the Education Law Center, a Pennsylvania legal advocacy group.
While not all school law enforcement referrals end in an arrest or charges filed, students may still be issued citations that require them to appear before judges or other juvenile court system officials. The federal data doesn’t specify what the referral was for, nor the result. (Credit: Corey Mitchell, Joe Yerardi and Susan Ferriss with the Center for Public Integrity)
Cobb County School District Statistics
The numbers for the Cobb County School District, according to the 2017-18 school year federal data, which are self-reported by schools and districts, show that the district refers Black and disabled students at higher rates than the national numbers or the state of Georgia.
Cobb schools referred Black students to law enforcement at nearly twice the rate of all students and three times the rate of white students. Students with disabilities have the second highest referral rate.
During the 2017-2018 school year, there were 515 referrals in Cobb County schools to law enforcement. Though Black children and teens are only 31% of Cobb County students, they account for 57% of law enforcement referrals. Students with disabilities are 15.7% of the population, but 27% of the referrals. White students, on the other hand, are almost 38% of the population, but only account for 22% of referrals.
Referrals of Cobb Students to Law Enforcement
The chart shows how many referrals were made that year, what percentage of the total population each category accounts for, and the percentage of referrals each category represents.
|# of referrals
|% of total pop.
|% of referrals
Wheeler High School had the highest number of law enforcement referrals with 116. Ninety of those referrals went to Black students. They accounted for 78% of the referrals though they are only 39.5% of the Wheeler population. Sixteen students who were referred had disabilities.
McEachern High School had 74 referrals. Fifteen students with disabilities were referred and 55 were Black.
Palmer Middle School had 51 referrals – 25 referrals were for students with disabilities and 21 were Black. At both McEachern and Palmer, Black students were overrepresented in the referral data.
According to federal data analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity, nationally, 4.5 students out of 1,000 are referred to law enforcement.
In Georgia, the rate is 3.3 for every 1,000 students. In Cobb, it’s 4.6.
Five Black students out of 1,000 in Georgia are referred. In Cobb, 8.6.
For students with disabilities in Georgia, 5.2 students for every 1,000 are referred. In Cobb, 7.8.
Charges dropped for autistic student
The incident with Gabe happened in August, the same month a 13-year-old autistic student had charges stemming from an incident in a Cobb middle school dropped in the Cobb juvenile court.
In January, Jadon Ringland was suspended for making verbal threats based on a video game in his classroom. Both his IEP and behavior intervention plan (BIP) explicitly address this particular behavior and provide a protocol for handling it, but the procedure was not followed. The parents were not informed that a school officer had filed a police report. Jadon was not arrested or removed from school premises after the incident – he was allowed to return to class after calming down. The suspension was handed down the following week. However, when his parents received a phone call days later from a juvenile court intake officer informing them that he was facing felony charges for terroristic threats, they were completely caught off guard.
The charges were dropped after a court evaluation found that Jadon was not competent for trial. Nor was the family required to take part in a comprehensive services plan because he already had multiple therapies and educational supports in place. By then, the parents had endured months of stress and legal expenses, so they filed a formal complaint against the district with the Georgia Department of Education. Cobb is currently under investigation for possibly violating the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and state education rules for not following his IEP or providing a free and appropriate education (FAPE) as required by law.
Cobb County School District Police Department
The Courier reached out to Capt. Ron Storey of the Cobb School District Police Department. He responded promptly, but explained that all media inquiries are required to go through the district communications department first. The following questions were submitted:
- How are parents/guardians notified in the case of referral to law enforcement?
- How are school police officers funded in Cobb County School District?
How long has CCSD maintained its own police force?
What is the working relationship with the Cobb County Police Department?
- What is the process of a student referral? Who contacts the officer-teacher, administrator?
- What are common reasons for referral?
- What training is required to work in a school setting? Is there training to work with specifically with students with disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorder? Has additional training been implemented in 2021 to work with students with disabilities?
- Describe the mentoring, youth and community programs with which the department participates.
The response from the district:
“The Cobb Schools Police Department includes a team of about 70 veteran public-safety experts who keep our students, staff, and schools safe so teachers can teach, and students can learn. Discipline referrals are handled by school administrators who apply appropriate District policy and regulations when students break District policy. Cobb school police often serve as mentors to students through their daily interactions and specific mentoring programs like ‘Concerned Cops.’ To learn more about how they keep our schools safe, visit Cobb Shield.”
The link provided by the district does not provide any information on the protocols for a police referral at school or about what kind of training officers are required to undergo to work in a school setting or with students with disabilities. It does state that CCSD PD works with the Cobb County Police Department’s anti-gang task force and references the above-mentioned mentoring program. The Courier wasn’t able to speak with staff for additional information, but this video of a “Concerned Cops” visit to Garrett Middle School is on the district YouTube page.
The district site also references an “award-winning” staff training video, but the link isn’t active. Two additional safety videos link to a private, unviewable YouTube page.
Open Records Request
The Courier submitted an open records request for campus police training requirements, discipline records of officers, and complaints filed against Cobb County School District police officers, but was not able to obtain them in time for publication due to the three weeks the district said it needed, in addition to the $6,404.70 estimated fee for retrieval, review, copying and redaction.
The request did yield additional details on required training:
“The Cobb County School District Police Department does not maintain complete training files on the officers, in house, due to all training classes and courses being maintained through the P.O.S.T. Council website. It must be noted that all Police Officers with the Cobb County School District are involved in on-going training at various time periods through the calendar year. The type of training topics and requirements vary with each officer. Some training, which is mandated by the State of Georgia, under the Governor’s Initiative training requirements includes the following: Cultural Awareness; Autism and De-Escalation; Mental Wellness; and Serving Georgia’s Diverse Communities are only 4 of the required 8 courses mandated by the State of Georgia.”
Jorge Santa, a high school freshman at the time, was at the center of a high-profile story about law enforcement in the Cobb County School District in 2018. Santa was charged with multiple felonies after he said two older students stole his lunch, used racial slurs and bullied him in class at Harrison High School. He said he fought back in self defense, but the other two students were not charged. The charges were later dropped and the family filed a lawsuit against the district. Cobb has also been accused of covering up incidents of bullying.
Hard Choices for Parents
Jadon remained at Hightower Trail Middle School for several weeks before returning to the H.A.V.E.N. Academy, a program for severe emotional behaviors and autism, because of his behavioral issues. He spent four years in the program when he was younger and did so well he met the criteria to return to his regular school. Last month, he was awarded Student of the Week, but now his mom worries about what happens if he’s sent back to a regular school again.
Gabe’s mom is also questioning whether her son would be safer returning to H.A.V.E.N., where she said he thrived when he was younger. Before a change can be made to his setting, behavioral data must be collected to prove the change is appropriate. He’s already been suspended again since the incident with the frightening phone call.
“His teacher would like to keep trying, but the resources just are not there,” Aguirre said.
While Jadon and Gabe had good experiences in such a program, that’s not the case for everyone.
H.A.V.E.N. Academy is part of the larger Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support (GNETS). GNETS is the subject of a class action lawsuit, accused of segregating disabled students from their peers and providing unequal educational opportunities.
According to the Center for Public Representation, “over 5,000 students with disabilities, the disproportionate majority of whom are students of color, have been sent to the GNETS centers.”
District Response to Data
The Courier reached out to the school district to give them the opportunity to review and respond to the self-reported numbers in the federal database that tracks referrals to law enforcement. We received this response from a district spokesperson:
“To confirm the accuracy of District data, we suggest researching records which can be obtained through the Open Records Process. We also suggest researching the difference between “law enforcement” and “administrative referrals” as you appear to be referencing suspensions, not law enforcement. In terms of comment, District policy is enforced for all students as individual people, regardless of race or socio-economic status.”
Metro Atlanta Snapshot
The chart below provides a comparison of how many students were referred to law enforcement by nearby counties in the same year. It shows how many referrals were made that year, the total enrollment in the district, and how many students out of 1,000 were referred. Paulding County had the highest referral rate of the included districts, with more than 19 students referred to law enforcement out of every 1,000.
|# of Referrals
Rebecca Gaunt earned a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in education from Oglethorpe University. After teaching elementary school for several years, she returned to writing. She lives in Marietta with her husband, son, two cats, and a dog. In her spare time, she loves to read, binge Netflix and travel.