Gov. Nathan Deal this week said in “many, many cases” people living in failing school districts “don’t have anything worth stealing.” He warned attendees at an engineering association lunch at the Commerce Club in Atlanta that criminals living in those school districts “go where people have nice cars, nice homes, things that are worth a criminal’s attention.”
Deal was making a pitch for his Opportunity School District (OSD) plan on the ballot next month. If approved by Georgia voters, the measure would allow the state to take over schools that failed the state’s “report card” for three consecutive years.
“Criminals go where there are things worth stealing, homes worth breaking into. That’s the very nature of criminal activity,” Deal told WABE when asked to explain his remarks further. “If they are in poor neighborhoods that’s not going to be the place that they necessarily decide that they want to commit their criminal activity.”
“That’s a scare tactic,” said Helen Butler, who is opposed to the OSD plan. She is executive director of Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, a social justice nonprofit.
“There are criminals in all things, and you have some criminals that live in the best of neighborhoods. You’ve even had criminals in Congress. It’s a scare tactic. It’s not used for anything that would improve our children,” said Butler.
Deal is known nationally for criminal justice reform, and he says the plan is part of that cause.
“I think it’s all interconnected and we have to start where we can start,” Deal said. “I’ve concluded that the best place to start to solve the issues of poverty, of racial and economic division, is to educate children.”
For Michael Leo Owens, an Emory University professor who studies politics and the criminal justice system, Deal’s statements go against “much” of academic research on crime.
“Even in poor places residents have things of value, so to suggest that poor places, poor school districts are devoid of assets is very silly and even disparaging of those communities,” said Owens, who is personally opposed to the OSD plan.
If the OSD plan is approved by voters, a number of schools the state would take over teach mostly black students. TV ads in support of it feature a state legislator who is black.
To be clear, Deal did not mention race when referencing criminals stealing from wealthy communities, but for Owens the two can’t be separated.
“When we mention crime the thing that goes off in many people’s minds is an image of the criminal, and the image of the criminal that tends to pop into people’s minds would be someone that looks like me. Black male, with a certain physical build,” Owens said.
WABE forwarded Owens and Butler’s statements to the governor’s office for a response. In an email, Jen Ryan, a spokesperson, said, “The governor’s comments speak for themselves.”
Here is an expanded version of Deal’s statements to the American Council of Engineering Companies of Georgia meeting at the Commerce Club in Atlanta:
Why is it that we don’t have so many chronically failing high schools? Those folks are already gone. They’ve already dropped out. So, their bad test scores don’t show up in those high school scores. They’re already out there amongst us. And one thing about crime, there is an entrepreneurial element to it. If you think that those who are coming out of bad schools and are dropping out and going to crime are going to only steal from people in their school district, you’re wrong. Those people don’t have anything worth stealing in many, many cases. They’re going to go where people have nice cars, nice homes, things that are worth a criminal’s attention. It’s time that we stop that. It’s time that a young person has an opportunity to see that if you will stick with me, and get an education there are jobs that are going to let you make a decent living and you will not have to resort to a life of crime. I’m passionate about this. I hope it comes through. I really am. I believe we have an opportunity, with all the other good things we have done, we have an opportunity to change the dynamic, not only of our state, but of our nation. Because we can show that people regardless of the color of their skin care about children and their education and if we work together we’re going to make a difference in that regard.
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