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Guns, schools and consequences 

click to enlarge Diamond Hatcher, 14, and her father, Gerald, outside their Indianapolis home. - REBECCA TOWNSEND
  • Diamond Hatcher, 14, and her father, Gerald, outside their Indianapolis home.
  • Rebecca Townsend

When Diamond Hatcher arrived at T.C. Howe Community High School on March 4, she did not expect to end the day at the Marion County Juvenile Center for a 20-day stay, nor did she expect to be expelled from school for a year.

That was before gym class and the gun incident.

"Most of the time in gym, we don't have anything to do ... so we sit around conversating," she said in an interview last Friday at her home on North Oakland Avenue, just east of the intersection of Michigan and Rural.

That was the situation on that Tuesday when she arrived at gym class. Diamond was not engaged in physical education, she was video taping a fellow student showing off his gun.

Word spread quickly to school administrators. They removed the student holding the gun in the video, but not before he passed the gun off to another student, who then passed it to Diamond, who then passed it to another student who put it in his locker, which is, according to the school's incident report, where school officials ultimately secured it.

When confronted, Diamond denied wrongdoing and refused to make a statement.

During the school's subsequent investigation, officials found the video, which according to school's incident report, showed the student removing the gun from his waistband and pointing it at the camera as Diamond recorded. Based on this evidence, the school recommended that all the students involved be placed under arrest and transported to the Marion County Juvenile Detention Center.

According to her father, Gerald Hatcher, who sat with her in court the next day, the father of the boy who brought the gun hired an attorney and the charges against him were dropped and he was released. The other students involved were transported back to detention until their next court date. Diamond was released more than two weeks later with an ankle monitor. She returned to court April 21 where the 14-year-old pleaded guilty to a D felony, possession of a firearm on school property. She was ordered to participate in Marion County's Project Life Program, a gun violence education seminar. In addition, she was ordered to participate in some enrichment activities as well as research career options and write a book report.

Following an expulsion hearing, school officials determined that Diamond should be expelled from school for a full year.

"It is our goal to keep kids in school," said Colleen Reynolds, who handles media relations for Charter Schools USA, the group that manages T.C. Howe as well as Emma Donnan Middle School and Emmerich Manual High School.

But, she added, it is a balancing act and, ultimately, "We have to do what is best for all students."

Though she could not talk about the details of individual students' cases, Reynolds noted that officials found the gun because of a student report, which she said, reflects a school culture in which kids expect to be safe, where they trust adults enough to ask them for help.

"We are trying very hard to create an environment where they do feel safer, where someone cares enough to say, 'We're not going to let anyone hurt you,'" she said.

The entire experience confounds Gerald Hatcher. He wonders where the teacher was when this incident began to unfold in the first place. He wonders why the charges were dropped against the kid who brought the gun to school but his daughter now has a felony to her name. He wonders what he is supposed to do with a daughter who has been told she can't return to school for a year.

"You've got to have discipline," he said. But, he added, with the current approach of shipping them to juvenile detention, "you're setting them up for prison, you're setting them up for failure."

Hatcher's comments touch upon a theme addressed in a U.S. Department of Justice report published in December of 2013 on juvenile arrests.

click to enlarge Diamond Hatcher's ankle monitor. - REBECCA TOWNSEND
  • Diamond Hatcher's ankle monitor.
  • Rebecca Townsend

"As a growing body of evidence underscores the corrosive effects that system involvement and confinement can have on healthy adolescent emotional, mental, behavioral, and social development, many jurisdictions are examining and developing ways to divert nonserious offenders from entering the system," wrote Robert Listenbee, the administrator of the DOJ's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

"With time, the cumulative effects of these and other reform efforts ... should result in a system where arrests are rare, all youth are treated fairly, and when a youth enters the system, he or she receives much-needed treatment and services."

At a "Conversations in Education" symposium held Monday at Central Library, Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee addressed a question regarding racial disparities in school disciplinary actions.

"We really haven't done a great job of collecting that data," he said, noting that he wants to make sure that principals do have those numbers "so we ask them the tough questions" and "ensure that our mode of discipline is not reactive, but proactive ..."

He also responded to a question about his reaction to a one-year expulsion for a gun-related incident.

"I think every school and every school district struggles with finding a balance between safety and academics," Ferebee said. "Any time there's an opportunity to have gun on campus, it comprises safety. At the same time, when a student is removed that's a year the student doesn't have access to instruction — a year that the student gets further behind."

As he considers disciplinary issues within the IPS system, Ferebee said that one issue of concern is his finding that close to 100 percent of the recommendations for expulsion are approved, a sign, he added, that the system of checks and balances is not functioning.

He also noted that IPS is engaged in a redesign of its alternative schools. "They should not be seen as dumping grounds, but as true alternatives," he said. "We often lose our most troubled teens and are not able to truly put our arms around them."

At this point, Diamond is not feeling optimistic about the future.

"If you want to make it, Indianapolis is not the place to be," she said. "Some schools, you can't challenge your brain. The school I was in was easy ... Most schools here, it's most likely for only five of the kids to graduate anyway.

"Our generation is horrible. We've got the most death; teenagers die every day or every week. If we're not getting shot, kids are having babies. The next generation will be worse... How we act is bad."

When asked what punishment she felt would be appropriate for handling a gun at school, Diamond suggested that the students not only participate in programs about gun violence, but also talk to other kids about what happened.

"Kids need to talk to kids," she said. "We can relate."

From his position on the frontlines of school safety, IMPD Officer Tronoy Harris, president of Tier One Security, which provides services to schools, including T.C. Howe.

He sees how kids are influenced to pick up guns to either "be the big man on the block" or to protect themselves. Harris said that many kids live in environments full of violence and dead ends. In trying to induce cultural change among gun-toting youth, Harris sees the most progress when kids are exposed to the wider world beyond the bounds of their immediate reality.

"There is hope," he said. "One kid at a time. If you can influence one and that student can influence another." n

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