Gwinnett teen: School board must crack down on discipline problems

Credit: John Spink / AJC

Credit: John Spink / AJC

The AJC’s Get Schooled Blog is publishing a series of guest columns this week focusing on school safety in Georgia and nationwide. This is the second of these columns. The first piece can be found here.

In a guest column, John Prewitt, a senior at the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology, shares his concern over discipline incidents occurring across the district. His column is a follow-up to a speech he gave at the October Gwinnett Board of Education meeting.

While Prewitt said no major incidents have occurred at his school, he hears often about problems on social media and from friends at other Gwinnett high schools.

By John Prewitt

If you watch the news or read the paper, you have seen trouble brewing in schools over alarming student behaviors. Gwinnett County Public Schools is no exception. As school systems emerge from COVID-19, learning losses and socio-emotional setbacks are coming into focus.

On every Gwinnett Schools publication is the adjective “world-class,” something I believe we, as a district, can no longer claim as a result of a misbegotten new approach to student discipline.

Within our schools, we are seeing increasing reports of violent fights, weapons on campus, destruction of school property, and, most recently, the death of a student. A National Center for Education Statistics report shows schools nationwide are facing post-COVID-19 increases in discipline and behavioral issues.

ExploreGwinnett student injured by box cutter during fight at Grayson High

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

According to the report, 84% of schools agree or strongly agree that the behavioral development of students has been negatively impacted due to the pandemic, and 56% report increased incidents of classroom disruptions due to student misconduct.

Yet, the most recent GCPS discipline data shared in the October school board meeting buck this trend. From the beginning of this school year to Sept. 30, GCPS discipline numbers trended downward, falling well below pre-COVID 2019 incident levels. For example, by the end of September of 2019, Gwinnett had written 9,001 student office discipline referrals, compared to 5,934 referrals this year.

These declining numbers contradict what we see in our schools. I believe it is due to the school board’s adoption of its new “Theory of Action for Change to Improve Student Behavior and Outcomes” policy. Through this policy, Gwinnett is focusing on restorative practices, which emphasize intervention, relationship-building and self-reflection rather than punishment.

The new approach seeks to prevent disproportionality in how students are punished. While the goal of enhancing fairness is imperative, the school system needs to explain why the implementation has been accompanied by both increased violent behaviors and a puzzling reduction in the number of office referrals, in-school and out-of-school suspensions and tribunals.

The GCPS Office of Student Discipline proclaims, “we are not light on discipline … we’re heavy on interventions. These heavy interventions are doing little to reduce disruptive behaviors despite the board’s data supporting claims that they are.

Another goal set forth by the Office of Student Discipline is to maintain a safe and positive learning environment for each and every student. If the school board is listening, members should also realize they are earning a failing grade in this endeavor. Many parents, students, and teachers have asked for changes to protect our learning environments, yet the board seems intent on ignoring pleas for help.

Ensuring the elimination of disproportionality in behavioral consequences does not mean we need to stop disciplining students altogether. Administrative teams at our local schools must be able to address serious discipline matters quickly and not fear reprisal from the board for doing so.

Our teachers and administrators are expected to implement a continuum of responses set forth in a long-standing program in Gwinnett called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, which tries to reduce poor behaviors through the encouragement of positive ones. As recent incidences of violence and disruptive behavior illustrate, these strategies are not only ineffective but also eliminate time administrators could be spending supporting teachers, students, and support staff.

Destructive, disruptive, and sometimes dangerous behaviors by students will not be extinguished using “I” statements, restorative circles, teachable moments, and warm welcomes. Schools attempting to send offending students to tribunals for egregious offenses like drug dealing, Title IX violations, and causing or threatening physical harm to students and teachers should be lauded rather than confronted with endless hoops. Students who endanger the health and well-being of our students, teachers, administrators and support staff have no place in our school buildings, even in ISS rooms.

Our alternative high schools must continue to provide all our students, even our offending students, the structure and safety they deserve. Schools should never fear retribution for sending students to tribunals for violent behaviors.

Lastly, the Gwinnett County Board of Education states its mission is to create school environments that are conducive to teaching and learning. If this is, in fact, our mission, we must listen to our teachers. Our schools need to respect teachers to make informed decisions that suit the needs of the students in their classrooms, not remove teachers from the decision-making process with policies that cannot be tailored to individual classrooms.

Gwinnett County Public Schools pride themselves on being “world-class.” It’s time for our board to enact world-class policy.