Videos of fights at Gwinnett County schools are becoming a common occurrence on social media this school year. Lunch has been served in the classroom and school has let out early on a staggered basis this week at South Gwinnett High School after more than a dozen fights broke out on Monday.
“We know that our students are exhibiting behaviors that we don’t appreciate,” says Superintendent Dr. Calvin Watts during this week’s State of the Schools address at the Gwinnett Chamber.
He admits it’s a problem that the district is trying to get a handle on.
“We’re looking very closely at some of the behaviors that are happening that might cause us to again look at the levels of accountability,” says Watts.
The school board approved a new discipline policy in August that uses what it calls “restorative practices” to get to the root of bad behavior in an effort to change it. It also expanded the tier system from three to five levels to determine the consequences.
But parents like Steve Smith say it’s led to an increased number of fights and other bad behaviors since the school year began.
“In the past, if you had students get in a fight, they’d be going to an in-school suspension. Now, they want to sit down and talk it out,” he tells WSB’s Sandra Parrish.
He has been vocal at school board meetings with his complaints as has parent Karen Lewis.
“I feel like they’ve gone way too relaxed on their disciplinary issues and are actually causing the very thing they claim they don’t want,” she tells Parrish.
But Eric Thigpen, Executive Director of Academic Support, disagrees that the policy is the cause of the increased number of school fights.
“I think post-pandemic, we’ve seen an uptick in violent, aggressive behavior,” he says.
He maintains the new policy does not keep students from being punished, and says behavior that is illegal, dangerous, or substantially disruptive will be dealt with appropriately.
But several teachers interviewed for this story say that’s not happening.
“For years, Gwinnett held a standard that any sort of disruption to the learning of another student would not be tolerated. And here we are now saying, ‘It’s okay, I’ll call home and tell your parents’, “says one veteran teacher, who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions for speaking out.
An anonymous teacher from South Gwinnett High School shared this message via email, “Discipline is a joke to students. Teachers and administrators are cursed out, verbally, and even physically abused on a daily basis. I have averaged 75% attendance in my classes since Monday. Good students are the real victims here, and I expect that our best students will probably not be attending South Gwinnett for much longer.”
So far, Thigpen is standing behind the district’s new policy.
“Every behavior communicates a need, and the more we can address and identify what that need is, the better off we will be,” he says.
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