Bad week for Bibb schools amplifies the need for quick intervention

The Bibb County school system had a spate of incidents last week that could make your head swim. On Monday, a 17-year-old alternative school student brought a box cutter to school and attempted to scar another student’s face. On Tuesday, two fights broke out at Westside High School that were serious enough to have five students ranging in age from 16 to 18 arrested. On Wednesday, a Weaver Middle School student brought a gun to school and was arrested, and Friday bond was denied the 14-year-old seventh-grader. Also Friday, shots were fired near a school bus stop causing Westside, Weaver and Morgan Elementary School to go into a heightened state of alert. Fortunately, no one was injured. With good police work, two suspects, both 16, were apprehended Friday afternoon. According to police reports, at least one of the pair has had issues with the law before. Police tracked her via her ankle monitor. And, to wrap up a horrendous week, another 16-year-old Westside student was found to have brought two knives to school.

What is going on with our youth? Is there an answer? The school system’s disciplinary policies have come under fire after a series of Telegraph articles brought the issues to light. A report from Safe Havens International pointed out several serious problems, from student and teacher safety, lax reporting of incidents, intimidation, real or perceived, of teachers and administrators and the difficulty of getting problem children out of the classroom. Not to mention the difficulty this newspaper and other media outlets have experienced getting timely and complete information from the district. Even Safe Havens hit the information road block.

As reported by The Telegraph, the Safe Havens report recommended the system withdraw from an agreement between it, the district attorney’s office, police and sheriff’s departments, the Department of Family and Children Services, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Family Counseling Center and River Edge Behavioral Health Center. Mike Dorn, head of Safe Havens and a former Bibb campus police chief, late last week characterized that report as a draft and said the final report actually recommends the system “withdraw” or “significantly revise the agreement.”

While the present situation looks bleak, the system is trying to address discipline issues. It hired Safe Havens, formed a discipline task force last school year made up of administrators and community members, held two safety forums and three alternative schools opened this school year. The system is now being urged by the community to listen to its consultant, and it has, but it should not withdraw from the Student Offender Early Intervention Protocol Agreement even though it will draw even more criticism for not doing so.

It should be noted that this interagency agreement wasn’t just cooked up by school administrators, but each agency was involved in its formation. The agreement is patterned after a similar protocol in Clayton County that has documented results: referrals of students to Juvenile Court dropped 70 percent. An 87 percent decrease in fighting offenses on campus was noted and the process reduced, by 86 percent, school-based referrals of African-American students to the juvenile justice system for fighting and a 64 percent decrease in referrals for disruption of public school offenses. The graduation rate increased 20 percent after the new protocol was implemented in 2004.

While the intent of the agreement is noted, the language needs to be more simple and direct. The police and sheriff’s departments always have the right to make an arrest, even on a first offense. That power is partially outlined with the sentence: “In addition, assaults and batteries committed by students on any school personnel shall be excluded from this protocol agreement. That clause should be expanded beyond assaults on school personnel to include a wider variety of misdemeanors.

And, the process should require more speed. We understand why the agreement gives the system 48 hours to notify the student that his or her case, on a second occurrence, could go to the School Conflict Diversion Committee, made up of representatives from the parties to the protocol, but parents should get that notice, too. And what could happen in that 48-hour period if the student is allowed to return to class?

The language in several sections should be stronger, for example, under the section dealing with first offenders: “the School District shall, within 48 hours of learning of the offense, provide the student with written notice that the commission of any further criminal acts may result in a referral to the School Conflict Diversion Committee; provided, however, the School District may initiate a referral to the School Conflict Diversion Committee upon the first offense for any student who commits a non-felony criminal offense involving drugs or weapons.”

We suggest substituting “SHALL” where the document says “MAY.” And students, even on first offense, depending on the severity of that offense, should be sent to the alternative school rather than being returned to his or her home school.

The agreement has several good aspects. It allows agencies to share student information, and while some have suggested this agreement gives carte blanche to misbehaving students, it clearly does not. However, concerns over victims’ rights is legitimate and should be addressed.

Whether this agreement works depends on two factors: the quality and commitment of the agencies comprising the School Conflict Diversion Committee and the policies and procedures addressing discipline before the committee steps in. Just because a student commits a first offense shouldn’t mean there are no consequences.

Given the scope of the issue, once-per-week meetings by the committee may not be enough to address the volume of the very serious problems facing the school system and the community. This agreement has a mechanism for amending it, and that work should start now.

Each agency is committing resources to this effort -- probably more than anticipated -- but the discipline problems in our schools should be the No. 1 priority. Monday, a called school board meeting will deal with that one single issue.

While these protocols have the potential to plug what is called the “school-to-prison pipeline,” every aspect of infrastructure should be in place before implementation. The school board should tell the administration to proceed immediately, although it cannot move faster than its partners.

The system seems to have responded to the week’s incidents appropriately. Information was disseminated in a much better, while not perfect, manner and parents were notified through automatic messages. Still, the district has a long road to travel to achieve the transparency residents deserve.

The agreement between the various agencies is a step in the right direction. It recognizes the discipline issues of our schools are a reflection of our community, and in many ways, we are reaping what we’ve sown. Decades of neglect has brought us to this precipice.

We have had discipline problems in our schools for decades. What we have been doing -- kicking students out onto the mean streets only to invite then to occupy our jails -- hasn’t worked. There must be a better way and this cooperative agreement is worth a try.

-- The Editorial Board