A parent-led grassroots organization in Georgia chips away at punitive school discipline policies and works to remove police from their schools.
When community activists created the grassroots organization Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline (Gwinnett SToPP) in 2008, their mission was clear, and their name spelled it out. Since then, they’ve been busy trying to overhaul their school district’s punitive discipline policies and remove police from their schools.
The reality of the school-to-prison pipeline in Gwinnett County, Georgia, couldn’t be more tangible than the structures on and near a high school campus there. The Office of Student Discipline and Behavioral Interventions—where school officials conduct discipline hearings similar to court cases—is housed right on the campus of Gwinnett InterVention Education Center-East (GIVE East). GIVE East is an alternative school for middle and high school students who, through a tribunal process, have been forbidden from returning to their assigned community school. A Gwinnett County Police Annex and the county jail stand across the street. And the district reportedly spends more than $10 million on school resource officers.
When students are literally surrounded by the trappings of the penal system, it normalizes that system and its patterns.
For many years, Gwinnett County Public Schools has received criticism and complaints about its discriminatory discipline policies. Several of its disciplinary decisions have been overturned in Georgia courts. Just within this last year, four of the district’s exclusionary discipline decisions have been overturned after being challenged by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Parents have been pushing to stem this trajectory before it starts.
Working Toward Police-free Schools
Tackling the issue of police presence at school had always been a concern for Gwinnett SToPP, but they were more focused on school discipline policies. Like other grassroots organizations, the 2020 Uprisings following the police killing of George Floyd moved the school police issue to the forefront.
“The whole police at schools campaign has been running for about seven years now,” says Marlyn Tillman, executive director and co-founder of Gwinnett SToPP. “We only came out publicly with it last summer because of the events that were going on. And it was a great time to then launch it publicly.”
Gwinnett County Public Schools is the largest school system in Georgia, serving more than 179,000 students. Over the last two decades, that county’s demographics have diversified, as white residents have moved out and people of color have moved in. Black students comprise 32% of the student population. Yet, according to the state’s most recent discipline statistics—select “Gwinnett County” in the school district dropdown and “Race/Ethnicity” for the subgroup—48% of all disciplinary action was handed down to Black students during the 2020-2021 school year, compared to only 11% levied against white students, who comprised 20% of the student body. The statistics show Hispanic students had a smaller population-to-discipline gap. They comprise 33% of the student body and received 34% of disciplinary actions last year.
While the demographics were changing, discriminatory practices were not. If anything, Tillman says, it got worse.
“As the county browned, the police force grew,” she says.
At the end of the day ... there’s no reason for us to be spending $10.4 million on police in schools.
— MARLYN TILLMAN
Tillman asserts that police have not served students well at Gwinnett County Public Schools, citing an armed force that too easily escalates conduct issues to entry into the criminal justice system.
“They’re often called to break up fights,” she says. “Their idea of breaking up a fight, however, is arresting students who were involved in a fight. Fighting is the number one disciplinary infraction that students are arrested for in Gwinnett County.”
In 2009, Gwinnett SToPP activists demanded that administrators denote in the student/parent handbook violations that could result in a referral to a school resource officer and possible criminal charges. That small change made a powerful impact.
“We managed to reduce by 33% the number of infractions that the school could even call the police on,” Tillman says. “That was huge, but understand that was all part of what we have to do to get them out. We got to improve this. … Because at the end of the day, the whole goal was, if we get them down to minimizing their function or policing, there’s no reason for us to be spending $10.4 million on police in schools.”