Two years ago, an assemblage of Bibb County leaders -- including former school Superintendent Romain Dallemand and law enforcement officials -- stood together to announce a new discipline plan for the school system. It was lauded as a game changer for juvenile offenders.
The program was aimed at diverting students who commit low-level offenses from the Bibb County Juvenile Court system. Under the 2012 Bibb County Student Offender Early Intervention Protocol Agreement, those students would go before a community committee, which would suggest appropriate punishment for them.
But the plan never got rolling. Among the concerns in some quarters were that the program could send repeat offenders back into classrooms. The school system’s own safety consultant warned that the program was a bad idea. Teachers already had been complaining about classroom disruptions and a culture of fear.
For now, the program remains dormant, as school officials focus on other discipline initiatives, including positive behavior reinforcement. Some school and community leaders hope the program can be revived in some form one day, but others are content with a refocus on tight discipline.
The diversion program has not been officially revoked, “but it’s sort of sleeping right now,” said Tom Matthews, the chief judge for Bibb County Juvenile Court.
Similarly, school officials are reviewing the program, and the plan is to bring it back up in time and address how to move forward with it, said Ed Judie, the system’s deputy superintendent for student affairs.
‘decrease in morale’
The program, used in other school districts, was meant “to control the number of kids sent to the juvenile system,” Judie said, adding that the system too often becomes “a pipeline to incarceration.”
When the program was announced in Bibb, reports showed the diversion plan had been successful in Clayton County schools, reducing the number of fights and even helping increase the graduation rate.
Still, the program drew negative feedback from Safe Havens, the school district’s safety consultant at the time. It predicted the program would encourage underreporting of crimes, increase victimizations and increase the number of dropouts and weapons brought to school, among other findings.
And some officials who were not part of the early planning, including Bibb County District Attorney David Cooke, have expressed issues with the program. A couple of years ago, the diversion program was implemented to some extent, and there were immediate problems, he said.
“There was a general outlook and philosophy of underreporting and inaction on even serious offenses,” he said, “and this led to both a destabilization of the school -- and the safety of students and teachers -- but also an obvious decrease in morale.”
Educators cannot teach and students cannot learn if they are afraid to be there, he said.
“I made it clear that we were going to prosecute people committing crimes in the classroom,” Cooke said. “It’s not about making a mountain out of a molehill. It’s about making the safety of students and teachers paramount.”
Assistant District Attorney Melanie Bruchet meets with high school principals and assistant principals, gathering their opinions on the best way to handle cases. The approach includes letting administrators know that offenses in the classroom will be prosecuted and that the school district administration will support teachers who make such reports, Cooke said.
It’s an effort to find a middle ground between enforcement and common sense.
“We’re at a point now where teachers are happy, ... students are happy and we’re at a good place,” he said.
CHANGES IN STORE
The school system is revamping its discipline program for the coming school year, focusing on a plan that has been endorsed across the state and the nation. The Positive Behavior Interventions and Support program focuses on acknowledging and rewarding positive behavior instead of just punishing bad behavior.
The district has hired a coordinator for that program and will receive a $22,000 donation from the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice to help implement the program “with fidelity,” Judie said.
Also, officials will be meeting with principals “to curtail some of the discipline issues we have currently in our district.”
Steve Smith, the school system’s interim superintendent, is also eyeing other changes to the district’s discipline system.
His goals include better utilizing detentions instead of relying on suspensions, and opening a new center that would stop bad behavior before it begins, he told The Telegraph during an interview.
Students who lose hope of graduating are more likely to become repeat offenders, and the Professional Learning Center would offer online courses to help those students catch up. The plan is to open the center no later than January 2015.
In the last academic year, Bibb schools had about 7,000 in-school suspensions. The year before there were 8,900. Out-of-school suspensions totalled about 7,600 this past academic year and 7,800 the previous year. Those are the number of suspensions, not the number of individual students who were suspended.
Most of those suspensions involved repeat offenders, who make up a small percentage of the student body. In fact, about 5,700 students systemwide committed a total of 17,800 offenses last academic year, officials said.
During a recent school board meeting, a couple of board members discussed discipline issues. Board member Ella Carter said she has spoken with several teachers who are still concerned about discipline.
“We’ve got to do something about discipline in our schools ... In some of our schools, it has to change,” she said. “We have a serious disciplinary problem in this system.”
Board member Wanda West suggested hosting parent training sessions to help parents understand how to curtail behavior problems in the home.
“We must bring parents in and have some accountability from home to school,” she said.
To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 744-4331.