Some Bibb County public school teachers say discipline problems have become so widespread that teachers feel victimized twice -- once by disruptive students who go unpunished, and again by the administrators who blame teachers.
Brad Wilson, a Macon attorney who represents the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said that instead of removing problem students, many administrators are accusing their teachers of having poor “classroom management skills.”
Wilson and teachers who taught last year at five different schools -- elementary to high school -- said teachers who try to send disruptive students to the office risk being targeted for a “personal development plan” -- a process that can be the first step toward losing their jobs.
Linda Brooks, a science teacher who retired from Northeast High School this summer, said she saw colleagues face such retribution.
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“I retired the first year I was eligible, and discipline was part of the decision,” she said.
Kindergarten teacher Rachel Veal said she left her job at Burghard Elementary School for similar reasons.
“Thankfully I was never targeted for a (personal development plan),” she said. “But I felt like maybe I would be or would risk my teaching certification for a discipline issue I didn’t even have control over.”
Safe Havens International, a company hired by the Bibb school system to evaluate school safety, provided a report to the district that The Telegraph acquired this week through Georgia’s Open Records Act.
The findings indicated that school employees repeatedly saw principals pressured to avoid suspending or expelling students for even criminal violations such as assault or knife possession. Staff members also told consultants they were pressured not to report discipline violations.
Some of them expressed fear of being fired if central office administrators learned that they had discussed this pressure.
One staff member said there had been implied threats to revoke teaching certifications for those who were unable to deal with discipline problems “using alternative methods,” the report stated.
In some cases, teachers have said they even felt they would be blamed for violence against them.
Nova Bruss, who retired this summer from Westside High School, said, “We were told if a student tried to leave your classroom, not to stand in the door because if they pushed you out of the way, that was your fault.”
Or if a teacher tried to confiscate a student’s cell phone “and they opposed you physically, that would be your fault,” she said.
Ed Judie, the school system’s deputy superintendent for student affairs, said he has never stood before a teacher and blamed him or her for the actions of a disruptive student. He said the central office has never told principals that students can’t be sent to the office or to disciplinary hearings.
“There is no conversation, no edict, no message, nothing that could be inferred that individuals who have disruptive kids in their classroom cannot refer them to the office,” he said.
But Judie acknowledged there might be a communication problem.
“If this is a climate that is existing down there, we have to talk with our colleagues in the cabinet here about how we make sure we’re communicating very clear what the expectations are,” he said. “We want a safe environment.”
Supporting teachers and staff is part of that, he said.
“Our primary focus is our children and their safety. But we want staff to understand the district is here to support them, and that is what we’ll do. And they’ll be seeing some tangible things to support them soon.”
Among those are the expansion of the alternative learning system and whatever changes are suggested by the district’s discipline task force, he said.
The blame game
Georgia law expressly gives teachers the authority to remove a student from class who “repeatedly and substantially interferes” with a teacher’s ability to teach. The law states, “Each school principal shall fully support the authority of every teacher in his or her school to remove a student from the classroom.”
But some teachers say the law is not being carried out in Bibb County.
Bruss said she felt that when two assistant principals at Westside tried to start the last school year with high standards for student behavior, they got in trouble for having “too many” students in in-school suspension or disciplinary hearings.
“I realize sometimes you can’t use an elephant gun to kill a gnat,” Bruss said. “But teachers began to be afraid to write students up (because teachers and principals) would get in trouble.”
Henry Ficklin, who retired this summer from Southwest High School after 39 years of teaching, said teachers were called on the carpet when they tried to report even major rule violations such as possible drug use.
If a teacher reported a student smelling like marijuana or having drug paraphernalia, he said, school administrators would demand proof before investigating.
Ficklin said he received little help from administrators when his cell phone was stolen from his classroom, allegedly by a student. He said he went to campus police, but when they didn’t file a report within the week, Ficklin filed a report with the Macon Police Department. He got in trouble for that at work, he said.
“It’s always your fault when something happens,” Ficklin said.
A few teachers contacted by The Telegraph said they have seen neither an increase in discipline problems nor teachers targeted for removing disruptive students.
Juanita Burger, who retired from Skyview Elementary this summer, said she never had any discipline problems in her class.
Jane Goss, who retired from teaching third grade at Carter Elementary School, said discipline approaches in her school did not seem to change last year. She endorsed the district’s idea of providing an alternative school for elementary school students.
Judie suggested that many teachers and staff members are grateful for the changes made in discipline under his watch, and he said he thinks it is human nature to blame problems on people higher in the organization.
But Wilson said morale among Bibb County teachers and staff is at an all-time low.
Veal said she taught kindergartners who cut each other with scissors or who sharpened pencils to throw across the room at each other like arrows.
But she said she was told to use only positive statements and not to call kids down. She was told to watch her facial expressions in class, because they were a cause of the discipline problems.
Veal used to cook with her students once a week as a reward for those who had behaved well.
“I was told I lacked compassion and I had to do it with everyone,” she said. “I stopped because other kids saw that kids who had colored on the floor and thrown things and called names got just the same as those who behaved all week.
“I felt like there was nothing I could do, nothing in my power to give or take away.”
Veal, like many teachers interviewed for this story, said she began to feel hopeless.
“You say, ‘We’ll see what happens in the first 30 minutes,’ and if we get through that you try to make it through the next 30 minutes. It’s just another day I’m thankful I get out alive and with no students harmed by other students in the classroom.”
Veal, who taught for eight years, said support from the administration lessened even further last school year, and she decided to leave.
“Teaching in the Bibb County school system has been a deterrent for me even to want to remain an educator,” said Veal, who is pursuing a master’s degree in art.
Pam Johnston, who was school council president at Miller Magnet Middle School last year, said she hated watching the effect of the discipline policy on teachers.
“When you take the best teachers at the school and they are consistently saying there is no support, you’ll destroy morale, and everything is going to fall apart,” said Johnston, who said she volunteers more than 100 hours a year in Bibb public schools.
The Safe Havens report warned that if the feedback the consultants received from teachers and principals was accurate, “the ability of the district to attract and retain high quality employees is likely being severely and adversely affected.” One principal even expressed a willingness to go back to teaching to escape Bibb County schools because of the lack of support for maintaining discipline, the report stated.
“I’ve been through four superintendents,” said Bruss, who taught 30 years in the Bibb school system. “I never felt as insecure as a teacher as I felt last year. I felt there was very little respect for the teacher in the classroom -- respect from students and also respect from administrators.”
Another Westside teacher, who had five years of teaching experience and a master’s degree in education, said discipline was the deciding factor in her leaving Bibb County schools, too. And she wasn’t new to threats on the job. In a former career, she’d had a gun held to her head during a bank heist.
But when she was asked at job interviews about why she was leaving Westside, she said, “I love Bibb County, but it’s not the place for me right now because” -- and she paused between each word for emphasis -- “I. Can’t. Teach.”
Like Judie, as well as many teachers, she added that most Bibb County students are great.
“It’s not that the whole county is overrun with horrible thugs,” she said. “But the ones who are bad make it bad for everybody.”
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.