Report blasts Bibb County school system’s handling of student discipline

hduncan@macon.comSeptember 6, 2012 

  • Improving school safety

    Here are the top priorities for safety improvements in the Bibb County school system, according to Safe Havens International:

    1. Improve current emergency plans.
    2. Withdraw from the Student Offender Early Intervention Protocol Agreement, which set up a diversion process for students who commit misdemeanor crimes at school.
    3. Develop and implement a credible approach to incident reporting, tracking and evaluation.
    4. Implement more effective strategies for student discipline.
    5. Improve student supervision at schools.
    6. Improve control over internal access to schools.
    7. Enhance staff training.
    8. Develop a drill and exercise program for staff.
    9. Conduct safety, security, climate, culture and emergency preparedness audits.
    10. Improve staff identification and visitor management systems.

A consulting firm hired to evaluate safety in Bibb County schools recently provided the district with its complete report, which included a scathing assessment of the way the school system handles and tracks student discipline.

The report also blasted a recent agreement, signed by the school district in May, to stop criminally prosecuting most misdemeanors that happen at public schools.

“The district needs to significantly improve its current approaches to student discipline and immediately withdraw from the recently signed agreement,” stated the report, which was provided to The Telegraph in redacted form nearly three weeks after it was initially requested. “This should be viewed as a core success strategy that will impact almost every major aspect of operating the school system.”

Of the court agreement, the report stated: “We feel this approach will drive underreporting of school crime even higher than the current dangerous level and that acts of violence and other negative outcomes will occur in the district as a result of this approach.”

The report by Safe Havens International, a company led by former Bibb campus Police Chief Michael Dorn, also found fault with the school district’s handling of discipline incidents on buses, its supervision of students, the funding and staffing of its police department, and its control over access to schools.

On the other hand, the report praised the district for key successes. These included developing a staff that is deeply concerned about emergency preparedness and is eager to learn, and developing an environment in which the majority of students feel safe at school. Most schools were clean with inviting environments, and all of them had good emergency lighting as well as internal and external video surveillance, the consultants found.

The Telegraph requested the report Aug. 17 and was told initially that the school system, which hired Safe Haven to conduct the review, would not provide it until it had been reviewed internally. However, this is not a legitimate reason for denying access to public records under Georgia law, which allows three days to produce the records or provide a timeline for producing them.

After the newspaper filed a formal open records request, the school system indicated that it would need time to black out portions of the report dealing with sensitive safety information, but that the report would be produced Aug. 28. It was not.

On Aug. 29, the Bibb school system’s in-house attorney, Randy Howard, said that due to vacations and illnesses, the report would not be ready until Sept. 4. It was finally delivered Sept. 5.

The Telegraph asked the school system to address findings in the Safe Havens report Thursday morning.

In an afternoon e-mail, system spokeswoman Stephanie Hartley wrote, “The report is being handled through our attorneys.”

Andrea Jolliffe, an attorney for the system, wrote in an e-mail later in the afternoon, “I do not have the authorization from the District to comment on the report.”

With more than 10 years of experience, Safe Havens calls itself the world’s leading nonprofit campus safety center. The company’s website indicates it has worked in more than two dozen countries, conducting assessments, publishing books on school safety and creating school safety web training courses and training videos.

Safe Havens used a combination of surveys, computer analysis, observational tours, crisis simulations and interviews focusing on nine Bibb schools, which the report did not identify. The assessment looked at a range of safety issues, from being prepared for major emergency response to the physical design of schools.

The report noted that its findings were somewhat limited by the fact that the school district refused to provide some key information, such as the number of weapons confiscated from students and the number of fights. At the same time, the report noted, the information might not have helped much anyway because it would have been unreliable, because analysts found that crimes and discipline incidents across the district regularly go unreported.

The report indicated that the top safety priority should be developing a written emergency plan, as recommended by the U.S. Department of Education, especially since the district already took $250,000 in federal grant money to do so. Safe Havens called for the plan to include specific instructions for staff in positions ranging from principals to custodians and bus drivers.

Safe Havens experts conducted crisis simulations with a handful of staff members at each school and found a “high fail rate,” but noted that many of the staff tended to err on the side of taking personal risks to protect others.

“We were impressed by the caliber of employee we interacted with in terms of personal valor,” the report stated.

Discipline and crimes

The school system’s second priority for improving safety, the report stated, should be withdrawing from a recent compact with law enforcement agencies and Bibb County Juvenile Court. Under that agreement, instead of being charged with crimes, students who commit misdemeanors at school would be sent to a School Conflict Diversion Committee, which would recommend counseling, substance abuse recovery services or other alternative supports.

The Safe Havens report indicated that this would basically strip victims of the rights they would have if a crime were committed anywhere outside public school.

“This is likely to send a clear message that when it comes to lower level violent criminal behavior, the manner in which the perpetrator is dealt with is far more important than the support and assistance offered to the victim,” the report states.

As an example, the report stated that a police officer who witnesses a student being badly beaten at school by three other students would not be able to arrest the perpetrators on the spot under the agreement. Parents would be unable to press charges on behalf of a child who was beaten up by gang members with criminal records, as long as it happened at school.

“While counseling and other interventions (sic) programs can be effective, our experience has been that school districts lacking effective punitive options for serious disciplinary situations have higher rates of violence, while also being forced to expel a higher number of at-risk students,” the report states.

“This agreement will further lower the number of reported misdemeanor crimes like sexual battery, simple assault, as well as disciplinary situations like bullying, while further increasing the number of actual victimizations.”

This would be a particularly bad move now because the district has no quality baseline data about current rates of crimes and fights at schools, the report stated.

Staff members told the Safe Havens team that the central office places already significant pressure on principals, teachers, school police and other staff not to report disciplinary violations -- even assault and weapons possession.

As a result, “We feel that the accuracy of reported data in the district is not only suspect, it is unreliable,” the report stated.

During an August interview, Ed Judie, the assistant superintendent for student affairs, said the central office has not instructed principals or teachers not to send students to the office or ask for hearings.

“Let’s be clear: I never said that,” he said. “Any administrator that has told their staff to keep those numbers down, it has not been a directive from the district or the superintendent.”

Asked about the underreporting described by Safe Havens officials in a preliminary report to the Bibb school board, Judie said the district seeks to ferret out any underreporting. He said a lack of accurate data makes it hard to identify safety problems and make improvements.

In its report, Safe Havens urged the district to develop and use a reliable tracking system for discipline incidents.

Brad Wilson, an attorney for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, agreed that such a system is sorely needed.

“The numbers turned into the central office do not resemble what’s happening in schools,” he said. Teachers and principals have told him that students basically aren’t being punished for rule violations, he said, including fights and bringing weapons to school.

“A lot of these kids are frequent behavior problems,” he said. “It’s not like it’s an isolated incident. ... You’ve got one person running the show who’s affecting the ability of the other 24 or 25 students in the class to learn.”

Contacted Thursday, school board member Gary Becthel said he had not seen the report. However, the report’s finding that crimes are being underreported is “something that should not be tolerated.”

Safe Havens confirmed feedback about reporting disciplinary issues that employees have given during the past year, he said.

“That is consistent with everything we have heard that was routinely denied by the administration,” Bechtel said. “I’m glad that a third party verified it.”

The Telegraph tried to contact all other board members but did not reach six of the eight. Board member Wanda West said she could not respond to questions because of poor cell phone reception.

Student feedback

Part of Safe Havens’ assessment of school safety included a survey of 6,300 Bibb County students on issues such as bullying, weapons and fighting.

Of those who participated in the survey, 66 percent said they felt safe at school, according to the report.

Only 28 percent of those surveyed said they had been bullied, but 72 percent said they had seen bullying take place.

One-third of surveyed students had seen a weapon at school, but 90 percent said they had seen fights.

The report said it was likely that there are more weapons on campus than the numbers show, since most weapons were likely hidden, and that incidents of weapons on campus and fights at school tend to be correlated.

“In other words, the more fights in a school, the greater the problems with weapons at schools,” the report states.

Sydney Rosen, a junior at Central High School, said she has not seen bullying or weapons at school herself, but she heard about guns on campus at her school and at Howard High School last school year.

She also said that in the past, many teachers didn’t take action when students fought -- and students took advantage of that.

“Fights would often be hard to stop, because students didn’t care about the teachers or what they thought,” said Rosen, who did not complete the survey.

However, Central’s new principal, Efrem Yarber, has implemented stricter policies, including one that makes sure teachers closely monitor students moving around in the halls, Rosen said.

Visitor access, bus safetyand campus police

According to Safe Havens, no schools it evaluated have a systematic approach to check visitors against a database of sexual predators. Three middle schools have a visitor management system with that capability, but the schools have not chosen to purchase that feature.

Safe Havens’ analysis revealed that “the average number of sex offenders living or working within (a) one-mile radius of a school in the district is significantly high,” and it called the number of offenders surrounding Miller Magnet Middle School “alarming.” There were 70 within a mile of the school, and 80 within a mile of Central High School.

The analysts also observed “significant gaps in student supervision” at eight of the schools, particularly high schools.

Among other key findings were problems with bus safety and the management of campus police.

Bus drivers and other staff reported that bus discipline has degraded in recent years, and they complained that they don’t receive prompt or adequate support from building administrators, Safe Havens reported.

Drivers expressed concern about weapons carried on buses, many of which appear to have been repeatedly slashed inside with edged weapons. Drivers also expressed concerns about parents attacking students on the bus and at bus stops -- and even waiting at a bus stop with a weapon.

Safe Havens recommended that the district appoint a committee to examine and improve bus safety and consider an automated system for reporting discipline violations on buses.

The report also recommended increased funding and training for campus police.

Safe Havens found that the Bibb district had left officer vacancies unfilled and reduced day-to-day staffing. Together, these represented a loss of an estimated 10,600 patrol hours a year, according to the report. In addition, the department has suffered from a leadership vacuum as it operates without a deputy police chief or permanent chief.

Despite the weaknesses found, the report concluded that all the schools “can move quickly and effectively to reduce the number of disciplinary and criminal incidents.”

Telegraph staff writer Andrea Castillo contributed to this report. To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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