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Gwinnett school board candidates face off in forum

The four newcomers vying for two Gwinnett County board of education seats  were like-minded on most issues during the only candidate forum dedicated to those races. But when they differed, the crowd of about 100 voiced their concerns. Not surprisingly, sex education, testing, arming teachers and student discipline elicited the strongest audience reaction.

Republican Steve Knudsen is running against Democrat Wandy Taylor for the District 2 seat and Democrat Everton Blair is running against Republican Chuck Studebaker for the District 4 seat. The current board members, Daniel Seckinger, District 2, and Robert McClure, District 4, aren’t running for re-election.

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The forum, sponsored by Gwinnett SToPP, a local nonprofit grassroots organization, in alliance with the Gwinnett County Human Relations Commission, took place Tuesday evening.

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Most candidates’ shortest responses were about whether using federal funds to arm teachers is likely for Gwinnett schools.

“No,” said Blair.

“Absolutely not,” said Taylor.

“Nope,” said Studebaker.

Knudsen said that wouldn’t pass in the current climate, but he wouldn’t rule it out “down the road.”

A question about eliminating school suspensions for students in kindergarten through third grade had all candidates agreeing that it’s a sad state of affairs when someone 8 years old or younger is put out of school. But none thought a blanket policy for or against it was a good idea.

“Let’s talk. Let’s get the parents and all the stakeholders and find out why we’re at a point where we want to suspend a second-grader,” said Studebaker. “Before I make a blanket statement to keep it or get rid of it, let’s talk about why it was there in the first place.”

“I would support a ban on school-based K-through-3 suspensions and I would require that all of those suspensions be approved by the board,” said Blair. “The preference would be to keep them in school and come around to some form of agreement,” said Knudsen. “I would say that it (suspension) would have to be a last-resort sort of measure.”

“We need to be clear on when we need to suspend any child. There are circumstances where children are suspended primarily because of severe out-of-control situations,” said Taylor, a former principal. “I have had third-graders bring knives to school and kindergartners throw rocks at teachers. … We need to look deeper than the behaviors and look at the rationale of why a child is acting out in the first place and we should be more concerned with restorative types of solutions than just suspensions.”

District 2 candidates were asked about the frequency of standardized tests.

“Are we preparing students to be good citizens to be equipped to hold down a job, to be self-sufficient — those are the things we need to be measured on,” said Knudsen. “Federal government and state government impose their own measurements on the county in the midst of all that you have to find your balance.”

“Standardized tests … are out of control in Gwinnett right now,” said Taylor. “My concern is that we are tying assessments to teacher evaluations … merit pay … we have got to reel it in and take control and determine which standardized tests are necessary to determine student growth.”

Perhaps the most animated audience outbursts came in reaction to a question about consent that turned into discussion about what type of sex education curriculum is most effective.

“It’s always going to be a hot-button issue and if you look at the larger school districts — Gwinnett, Cobb, Fulton and Dekalb, there’s only one school district that has adopted a non-abstinence-based curriculum and that’s DeKalb and if you look at their statistics … (they) are worse than the others,” Knudsen said. He added that success depends on graduating from high school, getting a job and delaying having kids until you are married.

Several attendees yelled out that he hadn’t addressed the question. Once order was restored, the other three candidates gave varied responses.

Studebaker said he thought they were two separate issues.

“We have to teach kids no means no … but we need to teach that at home,” he said. “I can’t rely on the schools to do that because that’s not their job.”

“It absolutely is our job,” Blair contradicted. “Our students are leaving our high schools with misinformation that’s leading them to make very problematic and very dangerous decisions.” He added that schools are treating topics such as consent as if they are something kids can’t handle. “We are a system of education and we chose what we want to educate our kids about.”

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