Clayton Schools taking new direction on discipline, student activities

Interim Clayton County Superintendent Anthony Smith held his first town hall on Tuesday. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Interim Clayton County Superintendent Anthony Smith held his first town hall on Tuesday. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Clayton middle and high schools students with discipline issues will automatically become virtual students until the district deems their behavior under control, the district’s interim superintendent says.

In a wide-ranging, virtual town hall Tuesday — the first of his tenure — Anthony Smith said that the south metro Atlanta school system will be decisive in addressing discipline after years of increasing violence among young people during the coronavirus pandemic. That includes creating “opportunity rooms” in elementary schools that will act as in-school suspension for the district’s youngest pupils.

“We’re going to be tough on our students in terms of their behavior,” he said. “Teaching and learning is at the core of what we do. We are not a social services organization.”

Smith’s remarks come almost a year after his predecessor, Morcease Beasley, late last spring banned bookbags and lockers after close to 100 weapons had been confiscated on Clayton campuses and school buses. The district required students carry clear bookbags when they returned to class in August for the 2022-2023 school year.

Other metro Atlanta districts have also grappled with increasing needs to address school discipline. Some, such as Rockdale County Schools, also have instituted a clear bookbag policy.

Smith, named interim superintendent in December, said the district is creating pathways to bring the disciplined children back into the classroom.

“We are not going to throwaway any child,” he said. “Just because we are going to be getting tough ... does not mean we are going to ignore them.”

He also discussed other changes he is making that he thinks will put the district on the path to success, including bringing athletic programs to elementary schools, reorganizing staff and adding non-traditional programs for a largely Black student body like golf.

“There is an urgency here in Clayton County,” Smith said early in his remarks. “We’ve had some struggles for a while. Folks know about it in this community and throughout the metro Atlanta area.”

Some of the changes are already underway. He said elementary students are now playing basketball while gymnastics, track, bowling and soccer programs are on the way.

“We now have the opportunity to give ... kids something to participate in that’s positive,” he said.

Staff will also see changes over the year, some to better align workers with their skills while others will have to prove their merit, he said. Leaders in the district’s central office, for instance, did not receive employment contracts recently issued to others at individual schools.

That decision, he said, “was not to cause anxiety but to merely ask them to reflect and bring to this school system a deeper commitment to the work.”

Smith also discussed the district’s $350 million SPLOST request for schools that Clayton residents will vote on during a special election March 21. The money would fund new schools, building renovations and the creation of early learning centers. But unlike past SPLOST requests, Clayton is asking that voters approve $435 million in bonds so that the district can access the money more quickly.

“We can ... start tearing down and building in May and June,” he said.

Among the asks in the SPLOST list is $70 million to replace the 60-year-old North Clayton High School with a new building that would include a nine-hole golf course. It would join 12 other golf programs in the district.

“Everybody said, ‘What do Clayton County kids need with a golf course,’” he said.

“Why not Clayton County kids?” he responded. “Why not Clayton County kids having something unique, something to brag about?”