Gwinnett school leaders admit discipline policy implementation errors

One board member suggested repealing the policy

The Gwinnett County school board agreed the district’s rollout of its new discipline policy has caused confusion and created problems for staff in schools, but members seem split over whether they still support the guidelines.

The policy, adopted near the start of the school year, has been blamed by critics for worsening student behavior. Fights, for example, have increased so far this school year in comparison to this time last year. School board members discussed the policy during a meeting last week.

Gwinnett’s guidelines state a commitment to resolving conflict and addressing root causes of behavior. It drew criticism and praise from speakers at Thursday’s meeting. Administrators said there wasn’t enough time to train staff and implement changes properly before the start of the school year.

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Board Chair Tarece Johnson and members Everton Blair and Karen Watkins said they support the policy. Vice Chair Steve Knudsen said he supports “about 80%” of it but was critical of Superintendent Calvin Watts’ leadership during the rollout, saying he took a blanket approach to a complex issue.

Member Mary Kay Murphy said she no longer supported the policy. She said it has undercut teachers and principals, who need their authority back.

“I’ve heard many, many, many cases of teachers who are going to leave our public school system,” Murphy said. “We can’t afford to lose the stellar teaching workforce that we have because we couldn’t solve this problem.”

The policy seeks to address historic discipline disparities and a high number of alternative school assignments.

Critics say it has allowed for misbehavior. They have shared stories of increased fighting and disruption making schools feel less safe. Others have argued the policy is a step toward correcting long-standing discrimination that’s particularly affected Black boys, but there needs to be a full discipline overhaul and a greater commitment to restorative practices.

The majority of the board has advocated for discipline reforms. That majority — three Democrats who are also Gwinnett’s first-ever Black school board members — ended the contract of 25-year Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks early and made way for Watts. The ousting of Wilbanks eventually led the state Legislature to make the board nonpartisan.

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Recently, school safety and discipline have been under a spotlight made brighter after a sequence of alarming incidents at schools in late October that included the fatal shooting of a high school student near his school.

Eric Thigpen, executive director of academic support, said there were 638 fighting incidents involving 947 students August through October compared to 473 incidents and 724 in that same span a year ago. There have been more instances of students bringing alcohol, blades, BB guns, guns and marijuana than last year.

In October, however, the district reported there were 250 tribunals, which result from the most serious rule violations, in August and September of 2021 versus 31 in those same months in 2022. Suspensions were also down.

Board members questioned how there could be more serious incidents but fewer disciplinary consequences.

Jorge Gomez, who oversees educational policy, noted the policy states, “suspensions or expulsions should only be used as a consequence to the most severe infractions.”

Neither the board nor the district said to stop suspending kids, but “we are sending the message that we, as a collective body, want to look at discipline in a different way,” Gomez said. That may have led to the expectation to end certain discipline measures, he said.

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“We did not remove consequences, but we removed an environment in which people were sure of the steps to take toward those consequences,” Knudsen said.

Watkins said she reviewed past meetings and saw district staff say they would need more time to implement the policy and properly teach thousands of staff.

“Restorative practices is not something you can do if you’re not trained,” Tinisha Parker, executive director of student services, said during last week’s meeting. She said the culture shift with discipline must extend to all employees.

Knudsen questioned why a new policy was implemented as schools across the country deal with student behavior that changed as a result of the pandemic, the main factor Watts highlights as a reason for the different school environment.

The district is holding meetings with community members, district staff and students, including ones who have faced discipline, about discipline and safety in schools. Al Taylor, chief of schools, said the input will inform course correction efforts that will launch near the start of the new semester.