Gwinnett teen: Keep Calvin Watts as school superintendent

Tyler Lee is a sophomore at Peachtree Ridge High School, where he is a member of the student council. In this guest column, Tyler writes that calls to oust Gwinnett School Superintendent Calvin Watts over student discipline are misplaced and ignore the real source of the problems.

Tyler was an intern on a 2020 U.S. House race and has since served on campaigns ranging from city council to the U.S. Congress. He is an advocate for greater local, state and federal efforts to reduce gun violence. He is an unpaid intern for Gwinnett school board member Karen Watkins. Tyler said the views in this column are his alone.

By Tyler Lee

Gwinnett County is home to one of the largest school districts in the nation with 180,000 students enrolled from all over the globe. There are 100 different languages spoken within our schools, and students come from 181 countries.

A school district this diverse deserves leadership at the helm of it that understands the beautiful mosaic of culture and language that grows within the halls of these institutions of learning. We have such a leader now in Superintendent Calvin Watts.

In recent weeks, we have seen a concerning uptick in violence in Gwinnett — a box cutter pulled during a fight at Grayson High School, a student gunned down near Norcross High, shooting threats across multiple schools including my own school, Peachtree Ridge High School.

As a political organizer and campaigner, I know the answer “it’s complicated” draws ire from many, but in this instance, it is.

It is human nature to want to blame someone in these series of events, and aiming the reticle at Superintendent Watts has crossed the minds of some understandably concerned citizens. A vocal group of parents have taken the spotlight recently, asking for Dr. Watts to be removed as superintendent due to the rise in violence and behavioral problems.

These parents contend that his leadership and the Board of Education’s “Theory of Action for Change to Improve Student Behavior and Outcomes” policy are to blame for this rise in violence.

ExploreAJC INTERVIEW: Gwinnett superintendent defends discipline approach

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Everyone can agree that students are influenced by those closest to them, including parents and family. Firing a superintendent who has little influence over how a student individually fosters community with friends at school hardly makes sense. It’s parents and guardians who have the most impact on a student.

It all starts at home. GCPS has rightfully placed the emphasis on dealing with this uptick in fights and disruptions on community and parent action. Urging parents to instill values in their children that will make them less likely to commit violent and/or disruptive acts is the most effective way to curb these behaviors.

But the school district is also attempting to help students develop self-governing behaviors that will help them approach disputes and conflicts in a responsible and thoughtful manner, a skill that will serve them long after their public school career.

School administrators won’t be there to discipline unruly and violent students when they leave the public school system. Students must learn self-control and alternatives to fighting and violence.

It’s important students understand why what they did was wrong, and why they shouldn’t repeat it, which is the goal of Gwinnett’s approach. Students have to learn how their actions can affect their teachers, classmates and the school community. If students don’t learn this critical life lesson, it might be law enforcement that deals with them.

The district’s use of behavioral correction does not come at the expense of appropriate discipline. The notion that kids are just sent back to the classroom with a lollipop in hand after they break the rules is false.

Teachers are encouraged to address classroom behavior in a way that allows students to realize their mistake and learn from it. The district’s approach is leveled. If you read the “Theory of Action” policy, a level one response to disruptive behavior can include a teacher reaching out to a parent/guardian and even detention. Level two can involve the administration, which can take appropriate actions including referrals, community service and loss of extracurricular activities.

Calvin Watts is a friend, community advocate, and someone who genuinely has a personal stake in seeing students achieve scholastic and personal success. I ask the Gwinnett County Board of Education to keep Dr. Calvin Watts as our superintendent.