A crisis in discipline

September 9, 2012 

A series of articles published by The Telegraph during the past few days, and concluding today, examined a crisis of discipline in Bibb County schools, one that threatens not only the safety of students but also their ability to get a decent education. It’s pretty grim reading. A student at Northeast High School threatens to shoot one of his teachers. A student at Heritage Elementary school slams another student’s head into a desk. “Even at the kindergarten level, I had ... children curse me, spit on me, hit other students, run down the tables and jump off,” said former Bibb teacher Rachel Veal, who declined to accept a new contract for this school year.

According to a school safety report by Safe Havens International that was commissioned by the Bibb school system, about a third of surveyed students said they did not feel safe at school, 72 percent said they had witnessed bullying and 90 percent said they had seen fights.

You might think the Bibb school system would decide that it’s time to crack down on the troublemakers, but instead it’s moving in the other direction. According to information the district is required to report to the state, the number of “evidentiary hearings,” proceedings used to consider strong steps against students with repeated discipline problems, dropped from 772 during the 2010-11 school year to 116 during the 2011-12 school year. The number of in-school suspensions dropped from 5,284 to 4,656. Expulsions fell from 228 to 23. While those statistics appear to show improvement, they are really the result of underreporting, teachers suggest.

Teachers interviewed by Telegraph reporter Heather Duncan in a months-long look at school discipline reported getting little support from the administrators about removing disruptive students from the classroom. Those teachers who tried to take action against disruptive students risked being targeted for a “personal development plan,” a process that can lead to getting fired, said teachers and Brad Wilson, a Macon lawyer who represents the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.

The Safe Havens report found much the same thing: that principals, teachers, school police and other staff feel pressured by the Bibb school system not to report even such severe disciplinary violations as assault and weapons possession. The report further condemns an agreement among Bibb schools, law enforcement agencies and Bibb County Juvenile Court that, rather than charge students who commit misdemeanor crimes at school, sends them before a diversion committee that would recommend counseling, substance abuse recovery services or other alternative supports. This agreement would elevate the rights of the perpetrator above the rights of the victim as well as trivialize any idea of effective deterrence, the report concludes.

The harvest of such an approach has been bitter fruit, indeed. Students who realize they will face slight consequences at best for their disruptions and crimes are growing ever more brazen in their misbehavior, taunting educators for their inability to control them and making it almost impossible for the teacher to help the students in the classroom who want to learn.

Morale among teachers is plummeting and many talented, committed teachers are jumping ship.

All of this points to a school system facing a deep crisis, one that requires an energetic and urgent response. Yet the Bibb school system appears to be throwing much of its energy into creating a culture of concealment. As bad as the problems are, it’s not clear that we have the full picture. The Telegraph repeatedly has been met with resistance in its attempts to get discipline information that it could use to tell readers exactly what is going on in the schools. Open record requests have been thwarted in a number of ways: the district has failed to reply to requests in a timely manner, adhere to timetables for complying with requests, and has interpreted open record laws to allow the removal of information in initial campus incident reports that should be public.

The district has cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act in its refusal to turn over some disciplinary data, though The Telegraph has made clear its interest was not in students’ names or other identifying detail protected under the act. The Telegraph wanted to see trends (Are things worse or have they improved?) and how certain infractions were handled (Was punishment the same for the same offense or from school to school?). The Telegraph wanted to be able to tell the story, whatever it might be. But Safe Havens acknowledges that it, too, was unable to convince the district to provide information about certain offenses. How can the district fix its problems if it won’t acknowledge them? And how can administrators expect parents to trust them with their children if parents can’t trust the administrators to tell them the truth?

To be sure, the Bibb school system has some laudable initiatives it wants to implement. “Wrap-around” support, such as counseling and parent education, to address underlying problems that may be causing some students to act out is well worth a try. No educator wants to abandon a child. But as longtime teacher Henry Ficklin pointed out, ideas that work in other parts of the nation might not work in Georgia. For all its potential, wrap-around will have little chance of success if Bibb schools slip into mayhem.

There is no easy answer to this crisis in discipline, but one man can create a hopeful start. If Superintendent Romain Dallemand will state unequivocally that he and his office will fully support educators who try to assert control of their classrooms and hallways, if he will state that students who threaten the welfare, safety and education of others will be firmly disciplined, if his office matches deeds to words and if there is a renewed effort to be transparent, to operate in the light, then there is a chance for Bibb schools to recover their balance. There will be a chance for young people to better themselves and a chance for our community to prosper.

-- The Editorial Board

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