No Real ‘Alternative’

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Over the past two years, Patrick Welch has grown accustomed to prison life. The metro Atlanta native must wear a uniform every day. He frequently must step through metal detectors and be patted down by security officers who are checking for weapons and drugs. He can’t move about his living space freely. Common personal items – including cash – are considered “contraband” and therefore are banned. He eats, sleeps and socializes exclusively with the 500 men in his unit.

As an inmate at Coffee Correctional Facility in far southeastern Georgia, Welch, 20, said he was well-prepared for prison life after spending eight months at an Atlanta Public Schools alternative school for disruptive students. A civil rights attorney described the school, Forrest Hill Academy (FHA), as a “prison before prison for the kids.”

Officially, the school was designated as the educational home for hundreds of Atlanta youths moving in and out of the juvenile justice system and those teetering on the edge. In 2008, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia sued the school system for operating the middle and high schools as what the group said was actually a “warehouse for poor children of color.”

The increased imposition of zero tolerance policies across the country has spawned similar alternative schools, used to separate suspended students and others with behavioral problems from regular classrooms.

Before he was arrested in 2009, convicted of robbery, hijacking a vehicle, gang participation and theft by taking and sentenced to six years in prison under Georgia’s First Offender Act, Welch was one of the eight named plaintiffs in the 2008 lawsuit seeking improvements at the school.

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