Neighbors say long-vacant elementary school is a magnet for criminals

ATLANTA — Some residents and business owners in a southeast Atlanta neighborhood contend a long-empty Atlanta elementary school is a magnet for criminals and blights a neighborhood that is struggling to get some traction.

Atlanta Public Schools said it has a very different view of that building.

There is an active dispute about the effect Lakewood Elementary — an old school that closed nearly 20 years ago — is having on a community that has a lot of crime.

APS said there have been minimal law enforcement issues on the property in the last six years.

Neighbors aren’t buying it.

Workers were putting up a fence around part of the school when Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher and photojournalist Alvin Bryant arrived Tuesday at the site on Sawtell Avenue, a short walk from Jonesboro Road.

The Atlanta U.S. Penitentiary is less than a mile away.

The building is nowhere near secured by the fence -- if that is even possible. Critics think the fence is an effort to appease them.

“We’d rather them take the money, get this process going and get someone in here who’s really going to invest,” said Gloria Hawkins-Wynn, an official of a local community association.

Yolanda Owens owns a wellness center nearby. She doesn’t believe the fence will block her view of what goes on around the building.

“When we look out the window, we see people, I mean I can’t even describe some of the things we see. I mean sexual stuff going on, drugs, people using the bathroom,” Owens said.

To the critics Belcher interviewed, what once was Lakewood Elementary is now just blight.


Developer Omar Ali organized the group that spoke with Belcher.

“We know the crime in this area is pretty bad, and statistically speaking, we know that blight leads to crime,” Ali said.

APS emailed Belcher that the district maintains and patrols the facility, takes care of the grounds including mowing the grass, secures windows and other openings as needed, and dispatches district police on regular drive-bys of the site.

“These efforts have resulted in minimal law enforcement issues on the property over the past six years,” the statement said.

Those Belcher interviewed said what happens actually on school grounds is just part of the problem.

“It’s the domino effect. We get prostitution. We get drug dealing. We get drive-by shootings,” Hawkins-Wynn said.

Jamin Butler owns a coffee shop next door in the building Omar Ali developed.

“You don’t see any children walking up and down this block. You don’t see any families coming outside, because this is a community where people feel unsafe,” Butler said.

Monique Nunnally is the education chair for NPU-Y, the city’s local neighborhood planning group. We asked her what she’d like to tell APS superintendent Lisa Herring about the old school in the neighborhood.

“We need urgency. We need her to act now. We don’t need any more waiting. We’ve waited for two decades, and historically more than that,” Nunnally said.

Ali said he successfully developed an old church and church school next door, and it now houses several offices with a total of 60 employees.

He’s convinced the old Lakewood Elementary building has similar potential.