This summer, the school board reached a consensus on changes to its student discipline policies and practices. The decision came after months of surveys and studies by a review committee tasked with researching best-practices in identifying student misbehavior and instituting fair penalties for misconduct.
Virgil Cole, the district’s assistant superintendent of administrative services, led the committee established in the summer of 2014.
“I find it very exciting to see it come to life,” said Cole.
He and members of the committee presented to the board in February recommendations on student discipline policy and procedure changes. They also proposed school-level training to help educators develop so-called “positive behavioral interventions and supports.”
Officials said the idea is to improve school cultures by cultivating understanding among students, teachers and administrators. They expect the training will yield greater empathy in the school community — more positive interactions and fewer discipline referrals.
The district was criticized heavily in 2013 for its perceived unfair discipline practices against minority students.
State Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur) blasted the district as a leading offender among Georgia school districts with discriminatory student discipline practices.
Jones called for a statewide study committee and has been active in his pursuit of legislation to address the disparities throughout the state.
Georgia Legal Services Program attorneys have also been busy appealing individual cases of students expelled or suspended from schools in Henry County.
Attorney Mike Tafelski regularly attends appeals hearings, representing mostly minority clients fighting school suspensions and expulsions for “often minor infractions” or misunderstandings.
Tafelski said the district, in recent years, has claimed a lion’s share of appeals cases in his office, which serves clients throughout the state.
He pointed to district reports that confirmed his suspicions of unequal outcomes in student discipline.
For example, in a monthly cumulative report for elementary school students ending June 6, 2014, black students were shown as likelier to be disciplined than any other racial subgroup.
The district’s report showed most policy violations were minor. There were 23 Section-1 offenses — six for detrimental behavior, six for disrespect, four for bus violation, three for inappropriate contact and one each for insubordination, non-physical fighting, “inappropriate item” and bullying.
There were 30 offenses between Section III and Section IV, including 20 for weapons, five for use or exchange of a drug, two “felony” violations and four for physical contact.
Of the resulting 51 discipline hearings, only four cases were found not guilty or with insufficient evidence. Seventeen cases received out-of-school suspension, 14 of which were long-term without the option of alternative education.
The data stated that 40 of those hearings were attended by black students compared with 10 for white students and one Asian student during the 2013-14 school year.
Black middle and high school students were also nearly three times as likely to be subjected to a disciplinary hearing — 548 blacks to 161 whites, according to district data.
The demographics districtwide — across school levels — were 48 percent black, 37 percent white, 4 percent multi-racial and 3 percent Asian in 2013-14, according to attendance data provided through the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.
However, district data revealed those schools reporting most of the hearings had large minority populations, such as Stockbridge High with 95 hearings and Luella High with 91 hearings.
The Stockbridge student body was 69 percent black in 2013-14, while Luella’s pupil population was 57 percent black, according to GOSA reports.
Board policy and student handbooks have been adjusted to reflect changes gleaned from recommendations put forth by the student discipline review committee in February.
Cole said he believes the edits to board policy are clearer and more current than before. The changes also provide for more administrative discretion on disciplinary matters and alternative penalties for certain policy violations and student misconduct.
He recalled an experience he had some 15 years ago as a school-level administrator when a Navy JROTC cadet was disciplined for having a pocket knife he likely forgot he had on his person. He said it fell out of the student’s pocket during a physical training exercise.
“It was one of those things,” said Cole. “I remember being sick about that. Most teachers always want to do what’s best for the student.”
He said the experience demonstrated the dilemma some teachers and administrators have when they are unable to use their discretion, even though the outcome for that cadet might still be the same today.
Cole said the district will work next on offering training through the aforementioned positive behavioral interventions and supports framework, also known as PBIS.
PBIS training will be funded and incorporated with existing professional development opportunities as decreed in Jones’s Senate Bill 164 amendment, which passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate this past spring.
The bill defines PBIS as an evidence-based, “data-driven framework to reduce disciplinary incidents” and increase a school’s sense of safety at it aims to improve academic outcomes.
“It’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of training,” said Jones. “The next step is to monitor the process and continue to look at the data. I strongly hope that they (Henry County Schools) continue to get the community involved and dialogue with them in an open discussion.”
Jones said he is hopeful efforts to reduce discipline referrals will continue in districts across the state.
He opined too many young students are deprived time in the classroom because of suspensions for minor behavior issues and as a result are more susceptible to falling behind academically.
“The whole goal is to teach students in school,” he said.
Jones said the movement toward PBIS is necessary “so that you don’t have third-graders expelled from school.”
He lauded school officials in Henry County for taking significant initial steps in reforming the district’s disciplinary practices partly by appointing its first director of discipline and safety.
Earlene Crump, formerly the principal at Eagle’s Landing Middle, entered that position this summer. She is tasked with acting as a liaison between the district and the Sheriff’s School Resource Officer Program.
Her department is charged with gathering and analyzing data, conducting surveys on discipline and building community relations on the issue of student discipline.
“I’m under no illusion that just because Henry County put someone in place, all problems will be solved,” said Jones.
“I think they’ve made a really good choice in Earlene,” he added. “My only reservation is that she does not have a legal background. (But) I think what she lacks in legal knowledge she makes up for in classroom experience and administrative experience.”
Visit the district’s website to learn more about changes to its student discipline policies and procedures, which are outlined in this year’s student handbooks.