AJC INTERVIEW: Gwinnett superintendent defends discipline approach

Amid criticism, Watts remains committed to changes big and small

Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent Calvin Watts affirmed his support for discipline policies implemented this school year and said he believes most in the district do as well — despite the vocal criticism the district has faced in recent weeks.

Watts, in an hourlong interview Wednesday with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said making discipline more equitable is essential work to serving students who have traditionally been marginalized.

In response to concerns about frequent fighting, other misbehavior and students feeling unsafe, Watts said small, immediate actions can have an impact. One such action is Watts will direct staff to check restrooms if they are walking past one. The district has heard consistently about fights, property damage and other disruptive actions occurring in restrooms.

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“Making sure adults are in the hallway during class changes” can discourage acting out or put someone in place to intervene, Watts said.

On a larger scale, Watts said he is committed to the discipline policy that the board approved several months ago. The policy emphasizes support systems for students and staff and restorative practices, which focus on relationships and addressing root causes of behavior.

“The vast majority of our leaders, we’re hearing anecdotally, think this is the right work. Leading with empathy so that we can address individual needs,” Watts said.

He said day-to-day relationship-building can be a factor in curbing behavior issues. If a student feels welcomed and gets along with their teachers and peers, they will be less likely to misbehave. “I would much rather take a vitamin than a painkiller,” he said.

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Watts didn’t feel the policy change led to a significant and sudden difference in school environment as some have claimed. The policy made it convenient to blame, he said. However, a sequence of alarming incidents at schools in late October that included the fatal shooting of a high school student near the school heightened attention on school safety, leading to two separate community events geared at finding solutions.

Watts, hired last year, sent a message to the Gwinnett community Wednesday afternoon, saying he’s aware of recent social media posts urging him to resign but indicated he has no plans to do so.

“As our superintendent, I remain committed to our shared responsibilities, and to working alongside you in full support of the success of our district and of each and every GCPS student,” he wrote.

Watts said the true cause of the different environment in schools was the toll of the pandemic and students’ separation from school.

Discipline statistics for the first two months of the school year raised numerous questions among board and community members. Despite the feeling among some that there has been more misbehavior, the suspensions and tribunals are lower than in past years.

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Watts acknowledged a communication issue — a notion he’s heard from teachers and administrators that the primary goal is to reduce numbers. Gwinnett has faced years of criticism from activists who say the discipline system is discriminatory: students who are Black, boys, disabled or economically-disadvantaged face higher rates of discipline than their representation in the student body. Gwinnett reported in August that it sent students to alternative schools at a higher rate than the Atlanta, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton school districts combined in 2018 and 2019, the last full years of school before the coronavirus pandemic.

Watts said the goal is to reduce the amount of incidents while providing alternatives to suspension where appropriate. Watts has insisted that discipline standards are not lower and serious actions still lead to appropriate consequences.

Two contingents have been vocal about discipline in Gwinnett. One has criticized changes and called to revert to the previous policy, arguing that students need stricter discipline for schools to be safe. They allege the new discipline policy allows students to get away with things they once would be punished for.

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The other has spent years advocating for changes to the discipline system, which they argue is discriminatory and pushes students away from school and toward incarceration. In an open letter this week, several social justice groups said Gwinnett has made “necessary, yet incomplete, improvements to the disciplinary policy.”

Gwinnett’s school board will meet Thursday, and Watts and staff will present more details about school safety and discipline initiatives.