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Closing the discipline gap
School board members say community's help needed

LAWRENCEVILLE - An African proverb says it takes a village to raise a child.

Likewise, Gwinnett County school board members say it will take the community's help to reduce the disparity in the number of minority students sent before disciplinary panels.

Data consistent with national trends show a disproportionate number of Gwinnett's black and Hispanic students were sent before disciplinary panels last year. Although 48.9 percent of students in the district last year were either black or Hispanic, pupils of those ethnicities made up 75.3 percent of the 1,910 disciplinary panels in 2007-08, according to a year-end report on student discipline.

Research shows the disparity is caused by four key areas: socioeconomics, a father's

presence or absence in the home, having a zero tolerance policy and cultural miscommunication, said Jim Taylor, the district's executive director of academic support.

While the former two are factors beyond the district's control, the latter two are areas in which the system has taken strides, Taylor said. The school system works to heighten awareness about cultural differences, which is important in a county as diverse as Gwinnett, he said.

Also, the school district does not have a zero tolerance policy, because research has shown such policies are ineffective, Taylor said. Instead, discipline rules are clearly outlined, and families are given a handbook at the beginning of each school year delineating the system's expectations for students.

"I couldn't make any guarantees about a change in the disparity," Taylor said. "What we can do is lower the number of suspensions and expulsions and tighten up the policy as we see the need to do so."

In fact, the school system last year adopted four recommendations from a task force charged with reviewing discipline policies and procedures, leading to a 16.8 percent reduction in the number of disciplinary panels.

Taylor said rule violations involving sex, drugs, weapons and violence warrant a disciplinary panel. For minor rule violations, site-based interventions are encouraged, and the number of students sent to in-school suspension increased by 10.3 percent last year.

School board member Robert McClure said the district's approach to discipline has improved. Still, there is work to be done, he said.

"I believe we can do a better job in anything we do, including discipline," he said, adding, "The No. 1 thing we have to continue to do is not lower our standards in academics or discipline. I believe every one of our students can achieve those standards, regardless of socioeconomics or race."

The only way to treat students fairly is to have fair, consistent standards, McClure said. He said he has too much respect for students, who are moral free agents, to use their individual backgrounds as excuses for their behavior.

"It's our responsibility as a school system to equip our students to make wise decisions and encourage them to do so," he said.

McClure said students will be more successful if parents and the broader community partner with the school system.

While he agrees the school system cannot immediately impact two of the four causes for the disparity in discipline - socioeconomics and family structure - McClure said he thinks a good education can have a long-term impact. Education can help people have a better economic future. Furthermore, it can help them to make better moral choices in the future, such as reducing the number of out-of-wedlock pregnancies.

"These are things we can impact, but not tomorrow," he said.

For Gwinnett to buck the national trend of having a disparity in the number of minorities who are disciplined, McClure said the community has to look the problem in the face and discuss how each party involved in the success of a child - such as parents, schools and religious groups - can do its part.

That dialogue can be stifled easily and quickly when people assume others have ill wills or intentions, McClure said. For example, he said, the recent news reports about a comment Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks made during a presentation about student discipline do not advance the conversations necessary to fixing the problem.

Other school board members have also said reducing the discipline disparity will take the help of the community. Earlier this month, Louise Radloff and Mary Kay Murphy both said the community needs to work together to solve the problem.

Chuck Warbington, executive director of the Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District, said community buy-in is critical in the success of a school. He said community members and parents can help by developing business partnerships with schools or becoming involved in the PTA, foundations or booster clubs.

Community involvement can help students improve their academic success, he said. About 300 children were involved in a summer school program sponsored by the Gwinnett Village Community Alliance, and 56 percent of students who were pretested performed better on the exam at the end of the program. Many of the students involved in the program likely would have stayed home alone in the summer, possibly getting into trouble, he said. Instead, they were focused on academics and returned to school better prepared to learn.

"I believe good communities build good schools," Warbington said. "Good schools maintain good communities."