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School officials question behavior patterns
Do disciplinary actions fit crimes?
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Despite a decrease in behavioral issues and violations of the Liberty County school code of conduct, school officials disagree on whether the system has improved during the past few years and on whether punishments appropriately fit the offenses.

In December 2010, the LCSS tribunal board reported nine student incidents ranging from being under the influence of marijuana to excessive truancy — issues that are listed as violations in the LCSS student code of conduct, Superintendent Dr. Judy Scherer said.

"This book lists the infractions and a progressive set of disciplinary steps, ranging from talking to students, calling parents, detention, suspension and expulsion," Scherer said in an e-mail. "Teachers and then school administrators determine the consequences for all infractions using the code of conduct until the offense becomes one where the student is referred to tribunal."

In January 2011, six incidents were reported, including a student snorting a "white pill" in class, a cap gun fired at school and a uniform violation.

Scherer noted that repeat offenses — such as disrespect, or an offense that 

"The tribunal is presided over by a hearing officer — in Liberty County we have two retired educators who do that for us. The hearing officer determines guilt or innocence and sets the consequences. Many times, there is much more to the story than is reflected in the report and the hearing officer can look at previous disciplinary issues, not just the one offense. Parents have the right to appeal the tribunal decision to our board of education and then to the state board of education," Scherer said. "I do not find that behavior problems are getting worse; behavior, especially at the elementary level, seems to be improving. Our biggest issue across the board seems to be blatant disrespect for authority, whether it is administrators, teachers, bus drivers, school resource officers or any adult."

Marcia Anderson, who has been a board of education member for 12 years, said the tribunal report has concerned her for a long time.

"I can’t say that it is getting worse, but I haven’t seen it improve either," Anderson said. However she credits the Ombudsman and S.T.A.R. programs — alternative schools for students with behavioral problems who might otherwise drop out — for helping students with repetitive behavior issues.

"In some cases, the principal may agree to let the student come back to school on strict probation. This is usually a situation where the offense is fairly serious, but there may have been some extenuating circumstances. Sometimes it looks as though we are not consistent, but for the most part, I think the hearing officers do a very good job keeping things fair. This is really hard to explain because each incident has different circumstances," she said.

According to the January 2011 report, one male student from Bradwell Institute "admitted to crushing up an unknown white pill and sniffing the substance during the fourth block on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2010." The tribunal board allowed him to return to school on strict probation.

A middle school student who showed "disrespect, disobedience and willful persistent violation of the student code of conduct," was expelled for the school year and may be eligible to apply to the Ombudsman program, the report said. Another student, also a middle schooler, who was cited for having drugs and "disturbance, disobedience, offensive comments and profanity," was allowed back in class on probation.

Harley Grove, director of the Ombudsman program and tribunal activities, was asked to comment on the evidence surrounding cases that involve students and drugs, however, calls and e-mails from the Courier were not returned.

Vice Chairwoman Verdell Jones also questioned whether the punishments match the crimes during Tuesday’s BoE meeting. She said that after she spoke to someone about the details surrounding the events, the January 2011 punishments made more sense to her. Jones said she could not give details for the tribunal report involving drugs, but said Grove could.

"We’re excited about the list getting smaller. It is evident that the principals, the tribunal officers, they’re just all doing a real good job," Jones said. "Our goal is just to keep all of our children in the regular school. We want to avoid alternative options as much as we can … we haven’t had any appeals, but we do want to be fair and we want to make sure that the punishment fits the crime."

Jones said that since she has been on the board — a little more than two years — the numbers on the tribunal reports have decreased, a trend she and other school officials said they hope will continue.

As for who should be responsible for teaching children good behavior, BoE members and school officials said parents and community leaders all have a stake in it.

"The parents of our students seem to be getting younger and younger and we have lots of grandparents raising grandchildren. Our teachers do all they can, but we need the students to get reinforcement at home for academics and behavior and sometimes home situations are not conducive to that," Anderson said. "Churches can be a valuable support for parents and grandparents, and we think they play an important role in this matter. S.T.A.R. and Ombudsman are a help, but that is still not a ‘fix- all.’"

Scherer, who thinks both programs have been successful, said and the BoE, administrators and other school officials work every day to find solutions to disciplinary matters.

Jones agreed that it will take community members, educators and parents working together to keep the number of incidents low.

"We just encourage partnership from our parents and others in the community to help," she said. "It does indeed take a village to raise a child."f

threatens the life or safety of another student, including fighting, weapons and drugs — result in a court-like situation, known as tribunal, where a punishment is issued. Students are allowed to have legal representation and both the students and school system are allowed to present evidence and call on witnesses for the report.
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