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Change in discipline approach aims to keep students in school

When Superintendent Romain Dallemand came to the Bibb County school system in February 2011, he brought with him a new discipline philosophy.

We’re not talking about the philosophy of dry, musty books. It’s a grittier brand: the philosophy of what to do with cursing, violent kids in the classroom.

It has led to debate among those who work in the classroom about the balance between educating students and helping raise them.

To summarize descriptions by Dallemand and his staff, the cornerstone of their approach is providing more “wrap-around” support, such as counseling and parent education, to address underlying problems that may be causing some students to act out.

“What we’ve done in the past is deal with a behavior without dealing with the social/emotional piece that may be the start of that behavior,” said Ed Judie, the school system’s assistant superintendent for student affairs. As an example, he mentioned that a child may act out when separated from a parent who is imprisoned or deployed.

The administration’s approach is also based on research showing that the more students are out of the classroom, the less likely they are to graduate. As calculated by the state in April, Bibb County’s graduation rate was 51 percent, well below the state average of 67 percent.

According to the nonprofit Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, high schools with greater out-of-school suspension rates tend to have graduation rates that are lower than average. Males, students of color and poor students were all more likely to receive out-of-school suspension than other students, the center reported.

According to a presentation Georgia Appleseed officials made to the Bibb school board recently, Bibb County’s out-of-school suspension rate was 14.4 percent last school year, almost twice the state rate of 7.7 percent.

So central office administrators emphasize keeping students in the classroom as long as possible, instead of using punishments such as out-of-school suspensions -- or expulsion.

“This is a significant change in philosophy by staff -- that kids can’t learn if they’re not in school,” Judie said.

But that’s not the whole picture, said Rachel Veal, a former Burghard Elementary teacher. She said teachers were warned that children who are removed from the classroom aren’t learning, causing decreased test scores.

“The teacher response is: If the child is creating a disturbance in the classroom, then none of the kids are learning,” she said.

Judie said students such as this, whose behavior draws a teacher’s attention away from teaching, are the ones now being identified as good candidates for alternative school.

In this respect, the district’s approach is endorsed by Georgia law, which states, “It is the policy of this state that it is preferable to reassign disruptive students to alternative settings rather than to suspend or expel such students from school.”

But during the last school year, the Bibb school system wasn’t using alternative settings much. At that time there were no alternative schools. Instead, Bibb County had a contract with a computer-based alternative instruction program called Ombudsman. Judie estimated that at any given time, the district was using only about a third of the Ombudsman slots available.

“They were hardly sending us anybody,” said Angel Caldwell, who was director of the Ombudsman Eisenhower Center last year. She said students were referred to her center only for bringing a weapon or drugs to school, or when they were returning from jail or a juvenile detention center.

“Even with fights, there had to be many occurrences before they would send them to us,” she said.

Judie said some high schools tried creative approaches to keeping disruptive students at their home school. Rutland High, for example, tried to create a school-within-a-school by shifting the hours when disruptive students took classes and ate lunch.

Wrap-around services

For disruptive students, the Bibb school system now tends to prioritize reformation over punishment.

Judie called the old approach “you do your time, we send you back.”

Once a student’s suspension or expulsion ends, he said, “That same kid is back in the building with the same issues, the same problems, and eventually will cause the same disruption to the educational process.”

The new approach was implemented, however, before the planned “wrap-around services” were introduced.

“There was really no system in place that would provide the resources we’re attempting to provide for our students,” Judie said. “The closest thing to those wrap-around services was identifying mental health support facilities within each zone.”

But the district couldn’t require students to use those services unless it paid for them, Judie said.

To add some support, the district extended the scope of responsibilities for school social workers and psychologists last year, although no staff positions were added to handle the additional workload.

Last school year there were 17 counselors serving the seven high schools, providing social and emotional as well as academic counseling, said Donald Porter, the district’s director of public relations.

There were 14 middle school counselors and 26 elementary school counselors. The district’s 10 social workers each served a group of schools.

Dallemand’s Macon Miracle plan calls for adding up to 10 “mental health specialists” and 10 more social workers by 2020.

Numbers provided by the district show that it has already added four more high school counselors for the 2012-13 school year, although the number of social workers has dropped to seven.

Counselors dedicated to providing help with personal problems and relationships with others are needed as soon as possible, said Henry Ficklin, a teacher of 39 years who retired this summer, due largely to frustration with discipline issues.

New versus old approach

Ficklin contends that the administration’s approach, based on ideas that may have worked elsewhere, isn’t right for Bibb County.

“We just believe in discipline in the South. We need someone in charge who understands that mindset,” said Ficklin, who is also a longtime city councilman and founded the Macon chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “I don’t believe it is ‘old-school’ to say without discipline, there is no learning.”

Others don’t believe the new discipline approach is motivated by concern for troubled students.

“Federal funding is the issue,” said Brad Wilson, an attorney for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.

Judie and Dallemand have repeatedly pointed out that when students are expelled, the district loses the federal reimbursement for them.

Nova Bruss, who retired this year after 30 years in Bibb schools, said she thinks the changes are just an effort to make the school system look better on state report cards.

“They wanted to show a vast improvement in discipline over the year before. And if you had fewer referrals, it would look like you had really improved discipline,” she said.

“I feel like everything is done for show.”

Rob Sumowski was the district’s director of student safety and management from 2004 through 2011, and he also served as hearing officer during the 2010-11 school year. He did not comment on individual student cases, but he said that under his tenure the district relied on a detailed conduct code. It had evolved over several decades and was approved annually by the board of education.

It listed almost every possible violation as well as the specific corresponding consequences. This helped enforcement and consequences be consistent, he said.

The Dallemand administration replaced the former 96-page conduct code with the 14-page “Guidelines for Student Success” during the last school year. This year’s guidelines appear basically the same.

“Some of the Bibb classroom behavior that crossed my desk was really alarming and uncomfortable stuff,” Sumowksi said in a written statement. “God knows we wanted to save every student, but this was not always possible because of the way some students insisted on behaving.

“There comes a point in life where one has to learn that one’s behavior has consequences,” he wrote. “If we educators and parents don’t teach this lesson early, we’re setting kids up for failure once they reach the real world, where behavior does indeed have consequences.”

Judie agreed that rule violations must have consequences, but he disagreed on what those consequences should be.

He posed the question of how to handle a troubled third-grader who runs through the halls and hits his teacher.

“What do I tell this child? ‘Oh God, I’m going to take you out because you’re the one child disrupting 24 other kids in this learning environment?’ ”

Judie acknowledged that some philosophical approaches might express sympathy for the child -- but still remove him.

But he added, “I don’t have those luxuries to say that. I’m guided by professional standards. I have an obligation to do certain things, and that is to protect and serve children and their families.”

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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