Gwinnett school discipline debate: Has compassion devolved into chaos?

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

As the COVID-19 crisis subsided and schools resumed “normal” operations, child advocates advised compassion and grace toward students whose sense of security was shattered by the pandemic.

Now, there are fears that compassion and grace have devolved into chaos and tumult.

Look no further than Gwinnett County Public Schools. Many parents insist the district’s efforts to move away from suspensions in favor of kinder forms of correction such as relationship-building and restorative justice have rendered schools unsafe and turned hallways into fight clubs.

Such allegations found a shocking visual representation last week when a video captured a student pummeling a Discovery High School teacher.

Parents showing up at a school board meeting assert that troublemakers get hugs and talking circles rather than stern lectures and suspensions. The district disputes such claims, insisting that serious wrongdoing still triggers significant consequences. The teen who assaulted the Discovery High teacher faces criminal charges and disciplinary action, according to the district.

As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, Gwinnett logged 638 fighting incidents involving 947 students from August through October of this year. In that same time span last year, there were 473 incidents involving 724 students. And there are more cases of students bringing alcohol, blades, BB guns, firearms and marijuana to school this year.

Gwinnett is not alone. A federal survey in May on the impact of COVID-19 on classrooms found that more than 8 in 10 schools have seen stunted behavioral and socioemotional development in their students. Many report a rise in classroom disruptions.

In revamping how it mitigates student misconduct, Gwinnett sought to address both achievement and discipline gaps. Research consistently finds that minority students experience disproportionate school discipline. And that discipline often takes the form of students being pulled from their classrooms, which leads to lower academic performance.

In a 2020 analysis of 2015-2016 data, the U.S. Department of Education estimated students in public schools lost more than 11 million days of instruction to out-of-school suspension. In a report on the impact to students from out-of-school suspensions, researchers at UCLA Civil Rights Project’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies urged districts to consider nonpunitive strategies that teach responsibility, enhance social and emotional learning, and help students improve their conduct.

Rather than routinely march wrongdoers to the principal’s office, Gwinnett is using restorative justice practices that focus on getting students to recognize what they did wrong, why they did it and how to make it right with those affected. It’s a noble goal, but one that UCLA researchers cautioned cannot be achieved without schoolwide training and staff support.

With parents and teachers telling the board that the new discipline policies were top-down and enacted without consensus, the Gwinnett school board has acknowledged the rollout may have been flawed. Among the chief concerns: The new initiative casts teachers as dispute mediators and creates a time-consuming process.

Shifting discipline to the classroom has come at a price to classroom management and instruction, forcing “teachers and counselors to dedicate an enormous amount of time and energy focusing on the very small group of students that are causing the most disruptions,” said Meadowcreek High School math teacher Linda Desmond at the Nov. 17 board meeting.

“The school culture has been hijacked and leaves many teachers wanting to leave the profession,” Desmond said. “The strain is not sustainable nor healthy. There is anxiety at every school, at every class change, because you never know where there will be a fight. The disrespect and violence are the norm.”

“This discipline system is not working for anyone,” high school student Eddie Madden told the board at the same meeting. “Invest in mental health resources. Instead of piling therapy onto the list of responsibilities of overburdened teachers or SROs, thoroughly investigate discipline infractions and don’t just punish but resolve the core issue. People don’t fight for no reason. Kids don’t bring guns to school for no reasons.”

Many alarmed parents and students speaking at board and community meetings over the last few weeks expressed dismay over guns and gun violence, but gun crimes are far more influenced by Georgia’s weak gun regulations -- gutted even further over the last few years by the state Legislature -- than any school district policy.

But Gwinnett can and should continue to examine whether its new discipline code was imposed too quickly and is taking a toll on teachers and classroom instruction. At the same time, parents have to accept that the surge in disruptive students is pandemic-related and will require their involvement and cooperation as well. Parents often clamor for tougher discipline until their own child gets in trouble. Then, they prefer grace and compassion.