YOUR OPINION MATTERS – Students Walk Out at East Ridge: 

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Comments submitted by Ramsey and Eric Atkins

Eric Atkins, co-chair of the Unity Group of Chattanooga, a civil rights organization, said the incident reflects a much larger issue.

“Five years ago, we pushed for the dismantlement of the school-to-prison pipeline around all Hamilton County Schools,” Atkins said in a phone call. “It’s not just about that video. It’s about being institutionalized and systemic when it comes to the treatment of our students of color in classrooms and schools that we must be addressing right now.”

Since the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in May, Hamilton County school officials have put an emphasis on security and safety.

In June, the district announced a near $1 million investment to put school security officers in every building. The Hamilton County Commission also put an additional $1 million toward the effort.

In August, the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office transferred roughly $600,000 in excess funds for the district to hire eight more security officers.

Unlike school resource officers, security officers are not active law enforcement and they cannot make arrests. They can, however, carry a weapon, detain and use lethal force if necessary.

Kendra Young, the executive director of UnifiEd, an education advocacy organization, said the difference between the two kinds of officers is important, in terms of how they are trained to approach situations.

“It’s very difficult to find (a school resource officer) who’s a good fit for the school, and I think that has a lot to do with the training,” Young, who spent 20 years with Hamilton County Schools, said by phone.

Resource officers use a certain lens, which is focused on law, she said.

“An officer is trained, the lens that they are trying to look for is they see disorderly conduct, which is against the law,” Young said. “An educator looks at that situation and sees a student who’s struggling and being defiant.”

School security officers are trained by the district, while the Sheriff’s Office trains the resource officers.

“The district’s school security officers that I have personally worked with and that my colleagues have worked with have been highly successful. They have gone through district’s training for how they want them to interact within our schools,” Young said. “I really think that the Sheriff’s Office thought that releasing that that body cam footage was going to bolster their position and excuse the things that happened. Any educator worth their salt is going to look at that and see the exact opposite. I think it’s just a different lens with which we view things.”

Atkins said he understands the need for increased security in today’s climate.

“But on the flip side of that, you’ve had a vast disinvestment in school counselors and nurses and personnel that help students on a day-to-day basis,” Atkins said.

He echoed Young’s sentiments on the need for better training.

“(Children) need their space to learn and grow, and a lot of the time, they’re not given that space,” Atkins said. “And as an effect, instead of teaching and guiding them in the right way, we punish or penalize and criminalize them.”

In a news release, district officials said they remain committed to student safety and are reviewing policies, procedures and training to see that promise through.

“We are providing clear and firm guidance to schools and law enforcement regarding our shared beliefs, commitments, shared protocols for engagement, and a continuous improvement process to foster student-centered relationships that support the safety and well-being of all HCS children,” the news release stated.

Officials said they welcomed conversation from the community and students.

“Just as we listen to the concerns and thoughts from our community, it is important that we also hear the voices of those in our classrooms who are directly affected by our actions,” the news release stated. “We appreciate our students’ willingness to be a part of this conversation, and we value their input.”  (The information was submitted to CNC by Eric Atkins, Unity Group and is part of an article written by Carmen Nesbitt.