Fulton County Schools faces surge in student disciplinary issues

Jacqueline Beard-Cathey, the school community facilitator, leads students in a restorative circle session, where they are prompted to talk about conflicts in their lives and learn skills to resolve conflict, at Tri-Cities High School in East Point on Tuesday, March 29, 2022.   (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Jacqueline Beard-Cathey, the school community facilitator, leads students in a restorative circle session, where they are prompted to talk about conflicts in their lives and learn skills to resolve conflict, at Tri-Cities High School in East Point on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

This school year, expulsions are double what they were just prior to the pandemic

Fulton County Schools is cracking down on discipline and ramping up prevention efforts in response to a rise in behavioral problems. It comes as students struggle to readjust to classrooms upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students are bringing more weapons to campus compared to recent years and brawling in hallways and cafeterias, said leaders of the state’s fourth-largest district, which enrolls about 90,000 students.

”Kids really have struggled through this pandemic, and I don’t know if we understood the full scale of those impacts until they returned to us full-time this year,” said Chris Matthews, assistant superintendent of student services.

ExploreAtlanta schools tackle pandemic’s mental health toll on students

The district expelled 158 students in nearly six months this school year, according to data obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an open-records request. That number already surpasses expulsion totals for each of the previous four school years, and is more than double the number expelled the year before the pandemic started.

“We’re not proud of the fact that we have to expel students, and so that’s why as a school district we’re leaning into what proactive measures we can take on the front end to prevent some of those incidents from happening,” said Superintendent Mike Looney.

Two of the three alternative schools that serve expelled students are full, while the third is nearing capacity, he said. The district, which contracts with an outside provider to run those sites, is looking to add more seats.

[AJC app users: Click here to read the full story]

Nearly a third of the students expelled in the first part of this year were in ninth grade. The first year of high school is always challenging as students develop social skills and test boundaries, Looney said.

But this year’s freshman class also spent much of their formative middle school years in virtual learning. When they returned to schoolhouses in August, students had to relearn routines and figure out how to resolve conflicts in healthy ways.

“This pandemic has done something to all of us in general, adults and children alike. We’re just having difficulty with the interaction we haven’t seen in the past,” said Kim Hartwell, president of the South Fulton PTA Council and mother of a Westlake High School student.

School safety

Many school districts are confronting student safety issues, which some say reflects a rise in violent crime in cities. In a recent meeting with Gov. Brian Kemp, superintendents asked for help as their schools respond to social media challenges urging bad behavior, student suicides and fights.

In Henry County Schools, the superintendent has said discipline incidents are down this year but those that do occur are more intense. Gwinnett officials reported in January that numbers are similar to pre-pandemic levels, but remain too high. The DeKalb district said it could not provide current school year discipline data because “it is still being collected and verified.”

Fulton started sounding the alarm at school board meetings soon after classes started.

From August through early February, Fulton schools reported 17 incidents involving a handgun, more than any of the previous four years.

Most campus weapons and fights can be traced to situations that started outside of school the previous night or weekend, Looney said.

“They’re not bringing the gun to school to do harm per se. They’re bringing a gun to school for protection to and from school,” he said. “With very little exception, it has been (that) there’s issues in the community.”

Looney said he’s concerned about not just the number but the severity of student misconduct. The district reported more than 3,000 fighting incidents in each of the two years prior to the pandemic. In nearly six months this school year, it logged 2,052.

Combined ShapeCaption
Jacqueline Beard-Cathey, the school community facilitator, leads students in a restorative circle session, where they are prompted to talk about conflicts in their lives and learn skills to resolve conflict, at Tri-Cities High School in East Point on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Jacqueline Beard-Cathey, the school community facilitator, leads students in a restorative circle session, where they are prompted to talk about conflicts in their lives and learn skills to resolve conflict, at Tri-Cities High School in East Point on Tuesday, March 29, 2022.   (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Jacqueline Beard-Cathey, the school community facilitator, leads students in a restorative circle session, where they are prompted to talk about conflicts in their lives and learn skills to resolve conflict, at Tri-Cities High School in East Point on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Fights involving three or more students now fall into the highest tier of offenses, making group fighting punishable by expulsion. Depending on the specifics of the melee, it also can lead to criminal charges, as do weapons cases, Looney said.

A series of fights disrupted the first few weeks of classes at Tri-Cities High School in East Point. After one major fight in August involving about 10 students, school police officers recovered two handguns, according to police reports. They found a loaded .38-caliber handgun, with one bullet in the chamber and one in the magazine, in a bookbag.

Students bringing knives to school is also a concern. There’s been 58 incidents in nearly six months, up from 54 for all of 2018-2019.

In September, a student at Centennial High School in Roswell was stabbed and sent to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. In January, two students were stabbed when a fight broke out at Banneker High School near Union City.

Since then, the district added 10 more security workers, at a cost of $157,200, to monitor cameras and supervise exits, stairwells and other campus spots. The additional personnel are assigned to five south Fulton high schools that have had three or more group fights.

Vincent Edmonds has three children in Fulton schools and leads the parent teacher student association at Bear Creek Middle School, where he has a seventh grader.

He said more parent involvement, not extra security, is the answer. More adults are needed to model good behavior and supervise chaotic cafeterias and hallways in between classes, when students sometimes scuffle. When he volunteers in the lunchroom, students shape up.

“I don’t think our parents understand that our presence is what’s needed,” he said. “Without us, nothing improves. So we have to be the ones who want to improve our schools.”

Finding solutions

The security response is part of what Fulton leaders say is a two-pronged approach to addressing disciplinary problems.

It involves law-and-order minded strategies that are in place or under consideration such as upgrading video surveillance equipment and lighting, paying school police to work more days, filing criminal charges and setting strict standards for behavior.

Leaders said they’re also supporting students’ social and emotional needs to prevent incidents from occurring. That includes building stronger school communities and rewarding positive behaviors.

At Tri-Cities, students flagged as high-risk because they’ve had a physical altercation or other problems participate in restorative circles led by a conflict-resolution expert. During a recent session, Jacqueline Beard-Cathey guided several girls through a discussion of how to calm down when emotions cloud their judgment. Their ideas: Listen to music, talk to someone, write.

The sessions push students “to delve into facts not feelings,” said Carmena Woods, an administrative assistant who works with the program: ”Our ultimate goal is to keep them in school.”

The district plans to open “safe centers” next fall at Tri-Cities and North Springs high schools. The centers are designed to provide students with services and community resources needed to succeed in school, such as clothing, mentoring and work-based learning. Banneker already has a center, which provides counseling, discipline support and necessities such as food.

Looney also proposed hiring more social workers next year.

Combined ShapeCaption
Guidelines are posted where students will take part in a restorative circle, where students are prompted to talk about conflict issues going on in their lives and where conflict resolution skills are discussed, at Tri-Cities High School in East Point on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Guidelines are posted where students will take part in a restorative circle, where students are prompted to talk about conflict issues going on in their lives and where conflict resolution skills are discussed, at Tri-Cities High School in East Point on Tuesday, March 29, 2022.   (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Guidelines are posted where students will take part in a restorative circle, where students are prompted to talk about conflict issues going on in their lives and where conflict resolution skills are discussed, at Tri-Cities High School in East Point on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Some violations are so serious that suspension or expulsion is warranted, said Deana Holiday Ingraham, mayor of East Point. But Ingraham, who previously served as the district’s director of student discipline, said how students behave is often a manifestation of something else happening in their lives.

She said schools need to make sustained financial investments to tackle the root cause. That means hiring more social workers and counselors, setting high expectations and making sure students “see themselves in the curriculum” so they’re engaged in class.

The district’s actions thus far are “a start,” she said, but “there’s more that can be done.”

Hartwell, the Westlake mother and PTA council president, said law enforcement measures aren’t enough. She said it also will require engaged parents and community members and attention to children’s social and emotional health.

Combined ShapeCaption
Carmena Woods, school administrative assistant, takes part with students in a restorative circle, where students are prompted to talk about conflict issues going on in their lives and where conflict resolution skills are discussed, at Tri-Cities High School in East Point on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Carmena Woods, school administrative assistant, takes part with students in a restorative circle,  where students are prompted to talk about conflict issues going on in their lives and where conflict resolution skills are discussed, at Tri-Cities High School in East Point on Tuesday, March 29, 2022.   (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Carmena Woods, school administrative assistant, takes part with students in a restorative circle, where students are prompted to talk about conflict issues going on in their lives and where conflict resolution skills are discussed, at Tri-Cities High School in East Point on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Though she’s heard about more group fights this year, she doesn’t feel her son is in danger in school.

“I don’t have a problem with him going to class. I do trust that the administration has eyes on this,” she said.

Reporter Cassidy Alexander and data specialist Jennifer Peebles contributed to this article.

Strategies to address misconduct

Fulton County Schools identified a number of strategies to address student misconduct and safety.

Preventions in Place

  • Contracted for 10 additional security workers to monitor cameras and buildings for remainder of this school year
  • Upgraded video surveillance equipment
  • Installed a tip line reporting icon on staff and student devices
  • Elevated group fighting to the most serious tier of offenses, punishable by out-of-school suspension or further actions
  • Expanded positive behavior intervention and supports in schools
  • Teach success skills to all students

Preventions Under Consideration

  • Hire more social workers next school year
  • Add safe centers to provide student supports at North Springs and Tri-Cities high schools
  • Extend the school police officer calendar by 10 days so that officers work 200 days a year
  • Develop therapeutic plan for elementary school students who show violent behaviors
  • Improve security lighting on campuses
  • Strengthen mentoring programs