Gwinnett to make ‘midcourse corrections’ to school discipline policy

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

District lays out plans to train restorative practices ahead of 2023-2024 relaunch

Gwinnett County schools will pause implementation of a new discipline approach at most schools to allow for more planning, training and guidance from experts in restorative practices, a philosophy that emphasizes relationships and addressing root causes of behavior.

Superintendent Calvin Watts announced these “midcourse corrections” at Thursday evening’s school board meeting after facing months of criticism from the community. Board members and staff said last month that confusion stemmed from hasty implementation of a policy designed to address longstanding inequities in a system criticized for its severity in imposing disciplinary action.

Parents, students and teachers lamented student misbehavior becoming more frequent and severe — district data from October shows fights have increased and more students have been caught with alcohol, marijuana and weapons more times than last year.

Watts announced the changes at the end of the meeting following the board member and public comment period.

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Watts said the district will pause required restorative interventions to allow for the necessary “20 to 30 hours of embedded, ongoing professional development.” The pause will last until the start of next school year, with full implementation planned by August.

Schools will be charged with identifying a staff leader or team to receive the restorative training first and then lead it in their school. Meanwhile, the South Gwinnett and Shiloh school clusters will pilot programs for restorative practices with guidance from Kingmakers of Oakland and Equal Opportunity Schools, two organizations focused on solving educational inequities.

As another part of the pause, the district will also adjust the consequences for 43 of nearly 200 infractions based on input from a discipline task force that met throughout December. Many changes are meant to lighten the load on teachers by sharing the assignment of consequences with administrators or shifting it to them entirely. The task force will continue meeting to provide a space to discuss discipline and safety issues.

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Board Chair Tarece Johnson and member Mary Kay Murphy said those meetings were valuable for hearing different perspectives. Johnson, a Democrat, found common ground with Denise Rumbaugh, an executive member of the local Republican Party. They agreed students need consequences, but discipline needs to account for the possibility of unseen pain or trauma that affects behavior.

Rumbaugh said she was glad to hear the district list firmer steps toward reforming discipline, even though she has reservations about the viability of restorative practices. She said reform efforts need to extend to accessibility of recreation centers, sports and other activities to steer kids toward positive influences.

D. A. Williams, a parent who participated in the task force, said it was time to stop placing blame and share the responsibility of improving schools and addressing cultural and community issues that spill onto campuses. Parents instilling behavioral expectations is key to the current challenges in Gwinnett, he said, adding he’d like to explore ways to assist parents.

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There were mixed reactions to Gwinnett’s announcement among some supporters of restorative practices.

Marlyn Tillman, founder of the social justice group Gwinnett SToPP, said the discipline reforms were “doomed to fail” because the district did not bring in experts to lead the change and assist with a planned implementation. She’s advocated for restorative practices and discipline reforms for years, but she was glad to see the district hit pause and try to course correct.

Eddie Madden, a Gwinnett senior, said he would rather see the district start from scratch and allow the community to participate in developing a discipline policy with a stronger commitment to restorative practices. He felt a pause was counterintuitive to the change that Watts and board members have said they want to see.

Murphy turned focus to ensuring teachers feel empowered to run their classrooms and asked for a survey to see how they feel about the policy. “If we don’t do something very significant before the academic year is over, we’re putting ourselves in great jeopardy that we don’t need to be put in,” Murphy said, relaying concerns with teacher morale.

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Teachers are “yearning for finding a way to do (restorative practices) right,” she said. “But it’s got to be done in a way that they’re not overwhelmed by it.”