Bibb teachers unable to control students under current rules

After 18-year-old Jaqavius Holloway threatened to shoot one of his teachers at Northeast High School in February, he was charged with making terroristic threats and disrupting public school.

As one of his bail conditions, the judge told him, “I don’t care if the school calls and invites you onto campus, you are not to go back,” prosecutor Elizabeth Bobbitt recalled.

But in May, Holloway showed back up at Northeast, saying he was allowed to return. No one in the office checked his story, and he had apparently never been expelled. So he went back to class.

Within a week, he had shoved a pregnant teacher and thrown her cell phone at her, resulting in a battery charge, according to a July indictment.

Bibb County Juvenile Court documents show that Holloway already had a record that included charges of battery, making terroristic threats and carrying a concealed weapon.

No campus police report was ever filed about the second incident. Bobbitt said she learned of it only when she called the school to get more information about the first case. She was surprised that Holloway had been allowed to return to school.

“My question to the administrators was, when something like this happens, can you not expel them?” Bobbitt said. “They said, ‘We don’t have any control over that.’ ”

During the last school year, the Bibb County school system dramatically reduced its use of expulsions, suspensions and the hearings used to consider tough punishments for students with repeated discipline problems. One result, critics say, is that more of these students remained in the classroom, often creating difficulties for teachers and other students.

According to information the district is required to report to the state, the number of such “evidentiary hearings” dropped from 772 during the 2010-11 school year to just 116 during the 2011-12 school year.

The number of in-school suspensions dropped from 5,284 to 4,656.

Out-of-school suspensions dropped from 4,128 to 3,431.

Expulsions dropped from 223 to 28, and permanent expulsion and corporal punishment were eliminated.

Ed Judie, the system’s assistant superintendent for student affairs, said the changes reflect the school district’s effort to avoid punishments that remove students from the classroom. There are still consequences for breaking the rules, he said, and safety remains a priority.

“Our job here is to protect our children. And I take that job seriously,” Judie said. “I will take the necessary steps ... to make sure our children are safe, our teachers are safe and our staff is safe.”

However, some teachers and administrators said they have been discouraged from -- or even punished -- for sending students to the office or requesting disciplinary hearings. Most of them declined to speak on the record, saying they feared retaliation at work. Safe Havens International, a consulting firm hired by the district in March to evaluate school safety, reported hearing similar statements from school employees.

“This theme was so pervasive that we feel confident that underreporting of fights, possession of ... alcohol, disorderly conduct by students, recovery of knives and other significant disciplinary and criminal incidents is routinely not reported in most, if not all, schools in the district,” the report stated.

Current and former teachers interviewed by The Telegraph spoke repeatedly of sending students to the office or to hearings for fighting, cursing, stealing, bringing drugs on campus or even carrying weapons -- only to see the students return to class with little to no consequences.

Linda Brooks, who taught for 24 years before retiring from Northeast High this summer, said students quickly realized this.

“There was just no discipline last year,” she said. “If you do something bad and nothing happens, then other kids assume they can do the same.”

Nova Bruss, who taught for 41 years before retiring from Westside High School this summer, said students recognized they would face no long-term punishment.

“I felt the whole atmosphere of the school changed,” she said.

Even elementary school teachers reported problems.

“Even at the kindergarten level I had ... children curse me, spit on me, hit other students, run down the tables and jump off,” said teacher Rachel Veal, who declined to accept a new contract for this school year.

“At Burghard (Elementary), I had children who cut each other with scissors, children throwing chairs. ... Any child with enough anger is going to have enough adrenaline to hurt someone throwing a chair.”

But if she sought to punish these children, or even exclude them from weekly treats she bought out of pocket to reward good behavior, she was chastised, she said.

When Superintendent Romain Dallemand unveiled his Macon Miracle strategic plan last spring, the biggest concern that parents and community members voiced was that it lacked enough emphasis on discipline.

“It concerns me that last year there were people with ankle bracelets on, sitting next to students,” said parent Andy Wilson, who has two children in elementary school and one in middle school. “I was concerned that teachers were threatened and students were right back in class.”

Safe Havens also conducted parent and student surveys about safety that showed moderate to severe problems with fights, drugs, alcohol and racial discrimination, according to the consultant’s report. Seventy-two percent of students surveyed reported that they had seen bullying happen. Only 56 percent of students surveyed said they thought school discipline was adequate.

Pam Johnston said she met with administrators at Miller Middle School last year to express her concerns about discipline.

“They did not want to acknowledge how it was getting worse,” she said. So she called a special school council meeting, inviting school district employees and school board members.

She said things “got marginally better” afterward.

“But it took a groundswell of parents getting involved,” said Johnston, who is director of children’s and family ministries at Mulberry Street United Methodist Church.

“And they still weren’t allowed to suspend or expel,” she added.

Tamara Pascal said her son had his head slammed down into a desk this week by another student at Heritage Elementary School. She learned about it from other parents rather than the teacher, she said, and the student who hurt her son was not sent to the office.

“There’s not a lot of control,” she said. “My child doesn’t even want to go to school because of this. He’s afraid. I’m concerned for my child’s safety, if there’s no repercussions for this type of behavior. ... You don’t know what to do. You feel helpless.”

‘Not going to do anything’

Four teachers, a parent and the attorney for the teachers association said students would actually taunt teachers in front of the class, saying, “Go ahead, write me up. They’re not going to do anything.”

Macon attorney Brad Wilson, who represents the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said teachers have also told him of students being merely sent home for the day after bringing knives or a gun to school.

If so, it could be a violation of state law, which requires that students who bring a firearm to school be expelled for at least a year.

Johnston, a mother of three school-age children who was president of the school council at Miller Middle School last year, said, “Kids could do whatever they wanted. There were no repercussions. Teachers were threatened. One teacher told me a student had a knife in her classroom and was back the same day.”

Judie said he receives daily reports from campus police, and every child who brought a viable weapon to school -- including items such as box cutters or brass knuckles -- was expelled for 365 days.

But Safe Havens stated in its report that when one student was caught with a knife, a campus police officer was told not to prepare a police report or file charges. Another of the analysts for the consulting firm watched a student verbally abuse and curse a principal and a school police officer before the student “simply walked away laughing as students and visitors watched, after demonstrating that school and police officials are not in charge at the school.”

Employees or parents from eight different schools across Bibb County, ranging from elementary to high school, said there were more fights at schools last year.

“For fights, kids are not even suspended,” Wilson said. “You don’t get punished now.”

Henry Ficklin, who retired this summer from Southwest High School, said he frequently had to leave his classroom to help other teachers with fights in their rooms or in the hallways.

“It’s a grave situation with discipline,” said Ficklin, who is also a longtime Macon city councilman. “I feel for the teachers who are still there.”

A former Westside High School teacher, who asked not to be named, said, “You try and teach, but some days you feel like you’re a prison warden just trying to keep them in class and sitting down and not hurting one another.”

The school system itself reported to the state an increase in fights at most schools last year. There were exceptions, such as Miller Middle School, Rice Elementary and King-Danforth Elementary.

Safe Havens reported that it could not verify how many fights there were at Bibb County schools last year, partly because the district would not provide the information when requested and partly because the company did not trust the district’s numbers anyway.

The report noted that a third of students who responded to a safety survey said they had seen other students with weapons at school, and 90 percent said they had seen fights.

The report said the number of weapons is probably even higher than what students have seen because most are hidden. It also said the number of weapons brought to school tends to correlate with the number of fights.

However, fewer Bibb County students faced criminal charges for fighting last year. Juvenile Court records show that the number of “affray” charges referred from the school district decreased from 257 in 2010-11 to 177 in 2011-12.

In the spring, the school system signed an agreement with Juvenile Court and law enforcement officials, aiming to reduce the number of Juvenile Court referrals for offenses such as fighting. Those cases will now be sent to a School Conflict Diversion Committee to decide the best interventions for issues such as substance abuse and gang participation -- a plan that the Safe Havens report criticized.

Angel Caldwell was a teacher at Weaver Middle School until September 2011. She said discipline was a problem long before Dallemand became superintendent, and it was always tough to get a hearing for students who were continually defiant and cursing their teachers.

But during the first three weeks of last school year, “The pressure got 10 times worse,” she said. “The message we were being given was: ‘The new administration doesn’t want to hear your excuses,’ ” and teachers were told not to write up students.

She said administrators even told teachers a fight had been “redefined”: Many punches had to be exchanged.

Teachers throughout the district report a rise in disrespectful behavior and cursing at teachers last year. This might be punished with a few days of in-school suspension, the former Westside teacher said.

“I was called a f------ bitch, a whore,” she said. “But it didn’t matter how many times it happened, there was no evidentiary hearing. It was like they had no records.”

Ficklin said responses to theft were weak, too. He said when his cell phone was stolen in class, a student named the alleged culprit. But administrators told Ficklin they were too busy to respond immediately, and when they investigated later, the phone was nowhere to be found.

But the 39-year teaching veteran said cell phone theft wasn’t unusual.

“When you have a culture where stealing a cell phone is the run of the day, that’s a bad culture for kids to be around,” Ficklin said.

When told of some of the teacher concerns in an interview, Judie said he would look further into the issue. He said the central office has not instructed principals or teachers not to send students to the office or ask for hearings.

But Judie said the school system did change its discipline approach last year, eliminating permanent expulsion and requiring teachers and principals to more thoroughly document their efforts to support troubled students.

And this school year, the district’s discipline approach continues to evolve, with three new alternative schools as a key element.

Judie said the school system has identified 10 “red flag” behaviors, ranging from selling drugs to less obvious indicators such as frequent absences. Those indicators are being used to identify children who might be good candidates for alternative school.

Hearings and expulsions

When a principal believes a student is a danger to others or the learning environment, the principal may request an evidentiary hearing. At the hearing, the principal, student and other witnesses may present evidence about the student’s behavior. A hearing officer employed by the district weighs the evidence and may recommend assistance for the student, placement in an alternative program, suspension or expulsion.

If a student or parents disagree with the hearing officer’s ruling, they may appeal to the board of education. Its decision is final.

During the 2010-11 school year, there were 772 evidentiary hearings countywide. The previous two years, there were more than 900 a year.

But during the 2011-12 school year, the first full year under Dallemand, there were only 116.

That included just 30 hearings by the end of the first semester. During the previous three years, there were between 383 and 392 hearings during the first semester.

The former Westside High School teacher said hearings would be scheduled, then canceled.

“They couldn’t say it in so many words, but everyone knew they weren’t having hearings,” she said. And in some cases, they weren’t writing police reports either, she said.

“A campus police officer told me last fall that if something happened to me and I was hurt physically, to file a report with the sheriff’s department, because the campus police wouldn’t do anything and it would get swept under the rug,” the Westside teacher said.

Until the 2011-12 school year, principals could schedule an evidentiary hearing on their own. That was changed to require permission from a zone superintendent. And permission was hard to get.

Judie said principals were told they had to provide extensive documentation of not only the student’s behavior, but also of all the efforts that the school had made to support and help the student.

For example, the district uses a “response to intervention” approach in which a team at the school recommends ways to help individual students who struggle with academics or behavior. The team’s suggestions are supposed to be written down, carried out and monitored.

Judie said documentation of these steps, as well as all communications with parents, should have been happening already. But no one was being held accountable for monitoring the process.

Now the zone superintendents are responsible for ensuring that the paperwork is complete before a hearing is granted.

“So this paperwork became a nightmare to those who were just accustomed to shifting people over” to the central office, Judie said. ”I can assure you if I now show you an evidentiary administrative transfer list and I walk you through that process, you’ll say, ‘My goodness, it’s easier for me to keep these kids in school.’ ”

According to data that the Bibb school system submitted to the state, there were just 28 expulsions during the last school year, down from 223 the previous year. (Most expelled students could choose to attend the Ombudsman program, which provided computer-based instruction at off-campus locations.)

Judie said the paperwork helped prevent expulsions that were based on an accumulation of poor behavior culminating in “a bad day.”

“It could have been something as simple as you refuse to obey me and pull your pants up, or you ‘mean-mug’ me and look at me harsh, or you’re disrespectful,” with the result of the student being sent to a hearing for potential expulsion, Judie said.

But Rob Sumowksi, who was the district’s director of student safety and management for years and also served as the hearing officer during the 2010-11 school year, said that during his tenure, the district required due process and direct evidence supporting an accusation.

“My goal was to help the disruptive student grow from his mistakes while ensuring the safety of students and staff,” he said in an e-mail.

Some teachers, including Veal, called the new paperwork requirement “overwhelming” and said it hurt their ability to teach.

At one point last year, she said, nine of her 19 students were on “response to intervention.”

“Each had individual behavior contracts I had to fill out every day, every 30 minutes,” she said. “I felt like my time last year was spent filling out paperwork and documenting the behavior of children, as opposed to teaching children.”

Brooks and Veal said at their schools, a student could not even be sent to the office without paperwork showing that a parent had already been called.

When one of Veal’s students cut another one with scissors, she said she had to call the injured child’s parents before people in the school office would provide first aid. She couldn’t send the perpetrator to the office either until she had called his parents from the classroom on her cell phone.

Judie said the district does not require parents to be called before a child can be sent to the office, and that a student who assaults another one should be removed from class immediately.

Drugs and weapons

Whether because of the paperwork or for other reasons, teachers at some schools said they saw fewer rule violations reported last school year -- and fewer students punished.

Ficklin said drug use at Southwest appeared to go unpunished, and Bruss said students at Westside who were charged with drug crimes would be back in the classroom within a few days.

“There was a refusal to deal with drug paraphernalia,” Ficklin said. “Teachers smelled pot (on a student) and reported it, and nothing was done. It got to the point where you thought, ‘What’s the use?’ ”

Judie said this is not what he understands to be happening in schools. “There’s zero tolerance in this community for drugs or alcohol,” he said.

“If I smell marijuana on you, you’re being removed from school. You need some help,” said Judie, a retired Army Ranger who calls himself “a very conservative neo-con.”

“The bottom line at end of the day is anybody that is an adult ... from a custodian to administrator, has a responsibility to report those things,” he said. “If they don’t do that, they’ll be referred to (human resources), which will take the appropriate steps.”

Judie said he does not believe the paperwork burden has led to the underreporting of violations and crimes that Safe Havens noted.

“I don’t know of any administrator that would not take the time to fill out the paperwork,” he said. “They’re professionals. I would suggest they understand the safety of their buildings, understand the climate of the buildings and understand their responsibility.”

He noted that some principals successfully pursued expulsions last year.

The school district’s only “no tolerance” policies requiring automatic expulsion are those mandated by state law: gun possession (although Bibb expands this to possession of any weapon) and violence against teachers or staff that causes injury. Even in some of these cases, students may be allowed to serve their expulsions at an alternative school.

When The Telegraph asked about campus police incident reports related to weapons, Judie said there were 61 “calls for service” to the campus police related to weapons that year. That’s more than twice as many the number of expulsions, which totaled 28.

Some of those police reports were related to false alarms or items such as plastic guns that weren’t truly weapons, Judie said. Other weapon reports may have related to items found on campus that could not be clearly linked to a particular student, he said.

Judie said the campus police reports reflected 13 guns -- although these included unloaded and toy guns -- 6 brass knuckles, 27 knives, and five box cutters found during the last school year.

“If I read in my daily reports that you had a weapon in school and you weren’t gone, I would intervene myself or have the discipline officer intervene,” Judie said, emphasizing the district’s support for its staff and students.

“I want people to walk into our buildings and feel that this is a bastion of hope and safety,” he said. “If you’re looking around your shoulder and worrying that someone is going to curse you or confront you, that’s not the kind of school system that we want.”

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

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