Gwinnett school discipline under scrutiny amid safety concerns

Discipline came up numerous times at a community panel

Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent Calvin Watts assured an audience Wednesday evening for a discussion about community violence that students were being held accountable for their behavior — a point that’s become an increasing concern among parents, students and teachers.

Among the ideas Watts presented during the gathering at New Mercies Christian Church in Lilburn is that the district is considering adding metal detectors or other scanning devices at schools.

Watts and others emphasized that the event was an initial step in addressing violence and that there was not a quick solution. However, a recent streak of violent incidents — including the fatal shooting of a Norcross High School student near his school — along with criticism of efforts to reform discipline policies have elevated the issue of school safety.

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Panelists implored adults to take a bigger role in mentoring kids and instilling respect at home that would carry over into school. They also called for more recreation opportunities and activities to keep kids busy outside of school. District Attorney Patsy Austin-Gatson questioned where students are getting guns and said, “If you have a gun, you should make sure it’s locked up.”

Other speakers included county law enforcement leaders, government officials and Jesse Curney III, pastor at New Mercies.

Shajan Alexander said his kids who are in middle and high school feel unsafe in their buildings and see fights frequently. He said the district needs to “make a U-turn” and go back to the discipline approach it previously employed.

“Let’s bring back the discipline,” he said. “Talk is not going to do anything.”

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

He said he wants to pull his kids out of Gwinnett schools with the conditions as they stand. Several people shared similar feelings at a recent school board meeting as they criticized discipline policies.

The district adjusted its discipline policies this school year to emphasize relationships and restorative practices. One of the main goals is to remove fewer students from class. Watts said multiple times that the notion that there are no consequences for breaking rules is false, saying that students have been suspended and faced tribunals when their behavior warranted it.

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Members of the social justice group the Gwinnett Remembrance Coalition said efforts to reform discipline policies that disproportionately affect minorities are long overdue and commended efforts to have a more just system.

Samia Abdulle, a member of the coalition and parent with kids at Five Forks Middle School and Brookwood High School, said problems that have long been in the district are coming to light because of the change in approach. “Now is the time that we need to come together and really address those injustices,” she said.

Both Abdulle and Alexander felt attendees should have been more involved in the event, either asking questions or participating in smaller conversations. Abdulle said they should have heard from students and parents as well. Organizers only allowed panelists to speak and answered questions submitted beforehand.

Another member of the Gwinnett Remembrance Coalition, Kevin Collins, whose children graduated from Gwinnett schools, asked, “Where are the teachers?” and said he didn’t hear enough about their concerns or their role in helping students.

Alexander felt a lot of questions and concerns that people walked in with were not addressed. He said there was not enough specific information about how students would be held accountable for specific behaviors such as bringing a weapon to school or disrespecting a teacher.

Panelists did not say if there would be additional meetings.