Gwinnett students weigh in on discipline, violence, need for diversity

Students push for reforms, compassion

Gwinnett County students relayed concerns with punitive discipline, unfair perceptions of their schools and a lack of teacher and staff connections during a town hall and series of panel discussions Monday night.

The event at the county’s courthouse complex was organized by local social justice groups and featured parent, student and teacher speakers, along with school district Superintendent Calvin Watts.

It’s the second event in recent weeks that’s focused on addressing safety and violence concerns in the community and its schools. The two events came on the heels of a series of concerning incidents involving Gwinnett schools and criticism regarding management of student behavior.

ExploreGwinnett school discipline under scrutiny amid safety concerns

The organizations that gathered Monday, including the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition, Gwinnett SToPP, the Gwinnett County NAACP and the Southern Poverty Law Center, released an open letter with a list of demands. Those include a total overhaul of the school district’s discipline process and several actions related to restorative justice, an approach that attempts to mend relationships after wrongdoing and understand and address the root cause of a harmful behavior.

Monday’s event was a chance for students to add their voices to the conversation.

“I don’t feel unsafe, but I don’t feel the safest,” Evan Sanders, a Central Gwinnett High School student, said. He said he doesn’t walk the halls in fear of other students — if someone looks aggressive that day, he just avoids them. He said violence isn’t contained to school, “violence is everywhere.”

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Jenna Williams, a student at South Gwinnett High School, said it can be alarming hearing of incidents at her school, but that’s driven by a lack of information. “I just feel like I don’t know what’s going on at my own school,” she said.

Students on the panel agreed that measures like metal detectors or clear backpacks would make them feel as if their school is less safe. Watts discussed during the prior event the possibility of adding metal detectors or other scanning devices at schools. Daniella Ajayi, also a Central Gwinnett student, said those measures wouldn’t affect community violence, which spills over at places like bus stops.

Shiloh High School student Andreas Forbes attended the event to share frustration with isolated incidents becoming the reputation of his school. A student fired a gun outside of Shiloh on Oct. 25, and Forbes said he saw that over and over in the news.

“There’s a lot more going on in our school than meets the eye,” he said. “Students are working really hard on stuff that should be known.” The good things in his school far outweigh the bad, he said.

Discussions about discipline took a different tone than in recent months, as many have raised alarm about student behavior and changing district policies. Critics have said policy changes geared at reducing disproportionate discipline and rates of suspension and assignments to alternative schools have caused more frequent and severe misbehavior. Watts has insisted students still face consequences for serious actions.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Many organizers of Monday’s event have advocated for years for the changes Gwinnett has started to implement. Students on Monday said the system has been impersonal and overly punitive. They said there has been no interest in why behavior occurred or how the school may help a student who acts out.

“Discipline means punishment,” Sanders said.

Irfan Khan, a Central Gwinnett teacher, said teachers failing to work with students can push students away from school. He hears from students who get suspended after getting in trouble with a teacher and stop going to that class.

Students also said the district needed to prioritize hiring diverse teachers and instilling cultural understanding to help students feel more welcome in schools.

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Watts acknowledged the district needed to work on how teachers and other staff relate to students. He also noted the district is hiring more teachers to reduce class sizes and enable better classroom relationships.

Monday’s event also addressed academic concerns. In response to parents and students who said access to different programs, particularly career and technical education, was difficult, Watts said the district would improve transportation options.