Gwinnett school district considers discipline overhaul

In response to community complaints about disproportionate discipline and harsher punishments for students of color, a Gwinnett County Schools committee has come up with recommendations. AJC FILE PHOTO
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In response to community complaints about disproportionate discipline and harsher punishments for students of color, a Gwinnett County Schools committee has come up with recommendations. AJC FILE PHOTO

The Gwinnett County school district is proposing revisions to its student discipline code that aim to clarify and narrow the scope of the code in accordance with recent court rulings.

Administrators are also considering broader changes to reduce inequities in discipline in Gwinnett, where Black and Hispanic students and students with disabilities make up higher proportions of discipline cases than their share of the overall student population.

“It is critical that we continue to work together to guarantee the code of conduct is supportive for each student,” Eric Thigpen, executive director of academic support, recently told the school board.

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Disproportionate discipline in recent years provoked an outcry from the community. Half the students disciplined in Gwinnett in the past two years were Black, although Black students make up one-third of the population.

Students in Gwinnett’s disciplinary alternative schools, known as the GIVE Centers, are disproportionately Black and Hispanic. About a quarter of Gwinnett’s disciplined students also have disabilities although they represent 14% of the student population, according to state data.

The school board recently voted to seek public input on eight revisions to the discipline code until May 20, when they could go into effect. The proposal would eliminate language that applies the code to student behavior off school grounds in some circumstances, after court rulings held the state does not allow such a broad jurisdiction.

“The school district has no real control over events that happen in the community,” Thigpen said.

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Another revision specifies the code of conduct applies off school grounds when students are cyberbullying or committing acts of physical violence against school employees.

Thigpen also presented broader recommendations from a committee formed in 2019 to address disproportionate discipline in Gwinnett.

Its recommendations included adding non-punitive consequences — such as counseling, mentoring and parent-teacher conferences — and expanding the GIVE Centers.

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The 29-member committee was ethnically diverse and included school system employees, judges, probation officers, parents, pastors, community advocates and college educators, Thigpen said.

“The student conduct behavior code review committee met during some very difficult times for our country,” Thigpen said, mentioning the Black Lives Matter movement and divisive elections. “I acknowledge that tensions are still very high and emotions are at a boil for some in our community, state and country.”

Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said the administration would take time to study the recommendations.

“We’re going to have a thorough review among the staff,” Wilbanks said. “We’re not going to move into this quickly.”

Marlyn Tillman, a committee member and co-founder of the Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline, told the school board that she and her organization do not agree with a recommendation that would allow students to remain enrolled longer at the GIVE Centers.

“The process did not lend enough time for the committee to do a comprehensive review to identify robust solutions to eliminating racial and program disparities,” she said.

Thigpen said the committee wants to continue its work beyond this school year.

Committee Recommendations

Here are some of the recommendations from the behavior code committee:

- Provide cultural competency training for all staff

- Reduce the amount of discretion in the code

- Allow advocates for students at disciplinary hearings

- Expand the GIVE Centers and allow students to remain enrolled there if desired