the lost children of rockdale county
Randy Poynter: Former Rockdale County Commissioner
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If you were describing Rockdale County to someone from out of the county, how would you describe this community?

randy poynter Rockdale County is a relatively young community as far as demographics. I think the average age in the county is about 35, 36. What that does is it means that there are a lot of children ... and consequently one of the biggest issues in Rockdale County is schools. ...

If you had to describe a typical one of these young families, how would you?

I think you'd see a very educated family, probably both parents for the most part went to college. You'd see a lot of times both parents working. Right now in Rockdale County the average income is probably in the top ten in the state. There's probably two kids in the families and they're pretty educated and pretty involved, as they can be. ...

I know that's difficult to do, but if you had to characterize the values in this community, how would you put it, what would you say?

I think it's very, very family oriented. I think no matter what you look at, whether it's the sports teams, whether it's the fact that we have absolutely no new dance clubs in Rockdale County ... . I think I could probably list in one hand the number of night clubs or sports bars that are in Rockdale County because people are very involved with their kids in what they do, whether it's youth soccer or youth baseball, or anything else.

What about churches and church going?

Pretty strong. I think you're going to see the families go to church a lot and they go to church a lot together. It's not when you go to church people are glad to see you, it's--if you're not there, people are going to get on you for not being there. We're still at the size with about 65-70,000 people that the pastors usually know pretty much everybody in the church, so if you're not in church on Sunday they're going to call and say, "Are you sick, is everything okay?"

If you had to characterize the attitude towards sex, what would be the attitude towards sex and young people?

Parents were trying to be friends with their kids as opposed to parents.   I think that comes about when both parents work and are away from their kids. They're not close to them, they don't have that bond they used to have. It's progressive. We're getting more permissive as we go. And I think there are a lot of things that show that. ... I think that what you'd find in Rockdale County is parents are increasingly more talking to their kids ... about sex, not as much as they need to, and I'm not even sure that [my wife] and I did with [our sons] as much as we probably should have, but we did as much as we could. But, but the attitude scares me a little bit. When I would talk to Randolph and David, when they were in the sixth grade, some of the stories they'd come back and talk about what kids were doing. I didn't even know that they could have sex, let alone that they were. ...

It strikes me that there's a little bit of a disconnect between the church going, the values of the community, and the activities of the kids. Have you noticed that, and if so, how do you make sense of that?

It's hard to reconcile the fact that, that the children and a lot of young people are increasingly going to church and they're increasingly participating more in church, but their sexual activities are picking up. It's not like what you'd expect to have happen, which is by going to church they, you know they abstain or stay away from it. ...

A few years ago there was a syphilis outbreak in this community.

A pretty large one as a matter of fact.

Tell me about what you know about the size and the make-up of the kids in it.

It was pretty large. I knew over thirty partners that had been involved with a group of three young ladies to start with, they were fairly young, I think the youngest was thirteen or fourteen, the oldest was sixteen or seventeen as far as the girls were concerned. The males went all the way from, from fifteen or sixteen, I think the oldest was around twenty-nine or thirty. And they were varied as far as the economic level of their families. The girls were fairly wealthy, I mean they were coming from upper middle class, nice families that you would not have expected something like that out of. And the boys that were participants and partners--some of them were exactly what you'd expect, some drug dealer types and some thugs that had been in trouble with the law before. But some of them also were very well respected doctors' children, teachers' children, even I think there was even one minister's child that was involved with it.

It really surprised me, and I remember when the parents were approached about this they could not believe that their kids had been part of it. ... They were flabbergasted and some of them were in total denial. They would not believe that their kids had been involved with that.

I know that you know a lot of this behavior was happening without knowledge of the parents...

Yes.

How can that be, how does that happen?

You know, a lot of it was happening without the parents' knowledge, but ... a lot of it was happening not in the sexual activity but letting kids go further than they probably should have. Some of the parents were letting their kids drink at home, some of the parents were actually letting their kids have parties at home and would supply kegs and other things that we saw. I think that all that is almost a symptom of what the overall problem was. Parents were trying to be friends with their kids as opposed to parents and I think that comes about because when both parents work and both parents are away from their kids, they're not close to them, they don't have that bond that they used to have. ... When I was commission chairman of the county ... we talked about the youth in Rockdale County, and we tried to focus on where that idle time was, the time between when the parents got home from work and the time that they couldn't do things, to try to give opportunities to kids to get involved with stuff to keep them from having the problems that they could get into.

Did you ever wonder whether that was your job, as County Commission, to be providing activities for these kids?

We did, and I struggle with that in my mind a lot. ... I feel very strongly that government should be limited as much as possible. ... I think the government should only do what people can't do for themselves.

... In Rockdale County I did struggle with how far government should go, and what I chose to do, and what I felt like was the right thing to do, was to give opportunities out there in areas that I thought government could be the only one that provided it--whether it was softball, whether it was baseball fields, a, a swimming pool or a gymnasium, or things like that that normal people could not provide themselves, and then encourage the parents to participate, through being coaches and different levels of participating.

We worked with the school system and the churches in the area to provide activities that kids could choose to go to, to get help with anything from having trouble with their boyfriends or girlfriends to getting extra tutoring. And we tried to bring as many of the family members into being with their kids again, almost like reacquainting them with them and letting folks that it is your responsibility, it's not Rockdale County's responsibility, the government's responsibility. Parents have to take control of what their kids do.

Are the parents doing that now?

I hope I'm seeing a swing right now, but I'm not sure that I am. It seems like we're still on this tear to make so much money, to have to have so much bigger houses, to have nicer cars, the group that's losing is the kids because we're not having connections and we're trying to be friends with our kids as opposed to being parents. You have to say no to your kids, your kids need to know that you love them enough to say 'you can't do that.' They need to know that when they go out. if they don't come in at proper time, that there's going to be something that happens that they don't like because of that. If we don't, then we're sending them a signal that we don't really care about them.

And so I hope that starts happening. ... I don't know if it's happening across the state and the nation. I hope it is. I think in Rockdale County ... that what you're seeing now is you're seeing more and more ... people realize that having that big house is not necessarily the answer. ...

Going back to the syphilis outbreak, there was a town meeting that happened after the outbreak had sort of run its course. There were very few parents that showed up, despite, according to the health department, a lot of advertising that happened...

Yes.

Why?

Because parents did not believe that their kids would do that. ... There were drugs that were involved, there was drinking involved, and there was a lot of group sex involved with it, and they just would not believe that their kids would be involved in that type of activity. ... Even the parents whose kids were involved with that, they would not believe that their kids could be involved in something like that. And they did not come. ...

Was this a group of kids that were sort of on the fringes, not ordinary kids, or was it really a cross section of kids of Rockdale County?

... Some of them were absolutely right in the middle of what I would consider the normal Rockdale County children. And then on the edges were the older folks. They weren't from this county, they were outside the county coming into the county. But for the most part, most of them were from your middle to upper income families.

... I suspect that if you look across the state or across the country, you'll probably see the same things happening in other places. You know, there was a syphilis outbreak in this particular one, and because of that outbreak, people heard about it. But the same activities I expect probably go on every place else, maybe just not the sexually transmitted diseases are a part of it. We tried to use that as a time to wake people up, to let people know that this is going on, in the hope that we'll get parents energized and involved with it. I know you guys interviewed some folks around Rockdale County, if you talk to the folks at the schools, you'll probably see that we have less parental involvement as it goes along as opposed to more parental involvement right now. And that needs to change.

What is Teen Plus?

What is Teen Plus? It is a concept [that] came about because the federal government had some dollars to bring down to communities hopefully to stop sexually transmitted disease outbreaks. And so what they did was is they created a pot of money ... that came down to the state and then was filtered out to the cities and counties to create centers that would hopefully change the behavior of the kids in the hardest hit areas where there was a lot of sexually transmitted diseases and problems. Back in '98, because there were a number of state wide races going on ... it really started becoming public that that's what was happening and there was some of them that had been created that were offensive to a lot of people.

Why?

They were offensive because what they were doing was they were taking the idea of sex and condoms and how you distribute them and how you teach kids and putting it in the middle school arena and away from parents.

... Let me paint a picture for you, if I can, of some of the Teen Plus centers that I went to. One that I went to first was in downtown Atlanta. And that Teen Plus center, if you can picture a city block, there's Dunbar Elementary School on one side, there's a tennis court a baseball field and a swimming pool on the other side, and there's a gym, okay, all connected by sidewalks, all on one city block. There is a Teen Plus center in the gym.

Now, in that Teen Plus center what happens is they can distribute condoms--and I guess any school could if they wanted to--but they can and do give advice to kids on sexually transmitted diseases, on birth control and other things. They can also give your kids contraceptives and they can also do exams if they needed to. ... And the part that I find extremely offensive about that is they are federal funds and because of the way they came down, the parents don't even have to be told. And so if you have a daughter and she wanted to become sexually active, she could go to that Teen Plus center in an elementary school, because there's no age limit, not a top or bottom, ... and she could ask them for advice on sex instead of talking to her parents ... They can give her birth control, if that is what she chooses to do. If she gets pregnant they can take her and, at her request--not at yours--and they can treat her, whether it's an abortion or just help her along with the pregnancy.

So what?

The parents aren't even told. ... My kids when they were in elementary school weren't at the age to make decisions that could effect their lives like that. And I don't want strangers to make that decision. If my kids have something that can threaten their lives, can threaten how they can have families or anything else as they get older, I want to help them make that decision. As their parent, I think that's my right and my responsibility. ...

And even worse than that, it's almost like a candy store. When you put all that stuff right in front of those kids and advertise it-- that was the whole point, to put [the Teen Plus centers] close to kids so that those kids knew it was right there and it encouraged them to come to it and do it. Well, that's okay, I guess, if you are disconnected with your kids ... maybe it's good that somebody is trying to do that. But I know for me, or for the people in Rockdale County, that was not what they wanted, they didn't want somebody to tell them what they could do and not do and provide services that intimate to their children. So that's what the controversy is.

You were pretty sure you were reflecting the values of Rockdale County in opposing Teen Plus here.

I think I was. We had public hearings on it. We had several very strongly attended public meetings. We talked a few minutes ago about the sexually transmitted diseases and the public hearings were held on that and they were not attended. I could draw a lot of conclusions from the fact that we have a meeting about Teen Plus and it was overflowing crowds of two, three hundred people who were extremely angry, and some of the very same parents whose kids probably were involved with some of the activities were saying, "No, you're not going to do that, you're not going to bring that to Rockdale County, we don't want that here." It came back down to what as parents people felt like was is that it was the government, the federal government in this particular case, coming down, putting their noses into how we're raising our kids. ...

Now wait a minute, though, you've just been talking for the last half hour about how parents don't have control of their kids, even in this county.

We've talked about is--a lot of parents think they have control over their kids because kids are very good at hiding things from their parents sometimes and again, maybe that's where the disconnect is ... . That is ... one of the very points that I made in those public hearings when we had it on the sexually transmitted diseases. I don't have the answer to it but again I can tell you what's not the answer. What's not the answer is to get the federal government or state government more involved in raising kids. ...

But I can tell you recognize the irony of parents who aren't involved enough in their kids' lives to know that they're having sex--at the same time saying to the government or Teen Plus, we don't want you talking about it either. So who talks to them?

If I had my choice of the government teaching my kids or me falling down on my responsibility and not doing it, I would rather have the responsibility and be very aware that that was my responsibility and be held accountable for it. ... I was not willing to take that next step which is make it that much easier on parents. Were there going to be consequences? Ya. And I was trying to do things to make sure kids didn't fall through the cracks. Without the Teen Plus centers, the health departments are in place today that can do exactly the same things. ... But, you know, don't force it down people's throats, and don't put it like candy stores in elementary schools like people are trying to do it. That was what I had a problem with.

There were those at the time and since, who said that your opposition to Teen Plus was political, basically. What is your response to that?

That's a legitimate question, did I do it because I was running for a public office? No, I didn't. I think and if you look at my career, what you'll see is that I've pretty much been pretty consistent in what I do and say. ... When I ran for Lieutenant Governor, I ran for that job because I believed that [on] the issues that were facing Georgia, I had a perspective that other people didn't have that were running, and I thought I could make a difference. I spoke very strongly about the issues that I felt strongly on and I was right up front and honest.

If you look back from day one, whether it was not letting new dance clubs come in Rockdale County even though a fraternity brother of mine tried to start one in Rockdale County, or whether it was how we ran county government, or how we didn't expand governmental programs, you would see those consistent all the way down the line. And what I said, if you look at how I've raised my family, if you look at how I live my life, I think you'll see that there's no inconsistencies whatsoever. And so I don't mind you asking that question, but I'll tell you straight up, you know, as honestly as I can, it was absolutely not political even to the point that we tried, if you go back and you look, what you will see is, is that I quietly wrote a letter and turned it down before it ever got to be a public issue. I tried to turn it down and not let it be a political issue as opposed to making it one. ...

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