Data from Gwinnett County Public Schools shows a gradual increase in drug, alcohol and tobacco rule violations that officials believe is linked to an increase in vaping.

During the Gwinnett County Board of Education’s monthly work session on Aug. 15, Executive Director of the GCPS Office of Academic Support Eric Thigpen said the 422 major rule violations committed in GCPS schools related to drugs, alcohol and tobacco were the most of any other major rule violation.

“We believe that is a result of vaping,” he said during the meeting. “Vaping is a serious issue for us.”

That number shows an increase from last year’s discipline data. During the 2017-18 school year, records showed there were 300 drug, alcohol and tobacco violations, according to GCPS.

Thigpen said parents and students are required to affirm they’ve read the school system’s Student-Parent Handbook before each school year and that classroom lessons are the primary measure being taken to reverse the trend.

“In school, students are taught about the dangers of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and vaping through lessons created and taught by health teachers and counselors,” Thigpen said. “In addition, we have a partnership with GUIDE (Gwinnett United in Drug Education) to help educate students about the negative impact of drug, alcohol, and tobacco use.”

Drug, alcohol and tobacco violations out-paced physical abuse of non-employees (421) and abuse or threat on school employees (224) for the number of violations that occurred from July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019. Physical abuse of a non-employee, Thigpen explained, primarily pertains to student-on-student violence.

The report also provides a three-year data set used for Unsafe School Choice Option, a Georgia Department of Education program designed to recognize unsafe schools for the purpose of intervention. The table shows an increase in non-felony drug offenses of 49.7% over the past three years. The report says there are 846 reported offenses in the 2018-19 school year compared to 565 in 2017 and 574 in 2018.

The discrepancy between GCPS data and USCO data is based on different criteria for classifying offenses.

Freshman troublesThe data provided by the school system also shows puzzling trends regarding in- and out-of-school suspensions for ninth-grade students.

The report said that 23% of in-school suspensions and 19% of out-of-school suspensions involved ninth-graders. That’s substantially the most of any grade. Investigating the root of the trend is complex, Thigpen said.

“The transition from middle school to high school is a difficult one for many students,” he said. “Studies show ninth-graders are more likely to get suspended than upperclassmen. It is a problem GCPS and many other school districts around the country are dealing with. We are actively looking for the root cause(s) and ways to address them.”

Felony weapons decreaseInstances of weapons being brought onto campus have decreased over the past three years, according to Unsafe School Option data.

There were 248 felony weapons offenses in the 2016-17 school year, which decreased by 12.5% in 2017-18 (217). The 116 felony weapons offenses in the 2018-19 school year is a 53.3% decrease from three years ago and a 12.8% decrease from the previous year.

GCPS data shows there were 93 weapons violations in 2018-19, a 24% decrease from 123 during the 2017-18 school year.

There were two violent criminal offenses reported last year. Both occurred in the same incident at Trickum Middle School when a teacher was stabbed by a student, and the student kidnapped a classmate.

There have been two violent offenses in schools each year since 2017-17 school year. There was one first-degree arson offense recorded at Peachtree Ridge and one aggravated sodomy offense at North Gwinnett High School in 2016-17. There was one aggravated sexual battery offense recorded at Shiloh High School and one aggravated sodomy case at Grayson High School during the 2017-18 school year.

Fairness to all ethnic groupsData showing the number of hearings by ethnic groups show black students made up 50.4% of disciplinary hearings and Hispanic students made up 32.2% of hearings.

“This represents less than 1% of our students,” Thigpen told school board members regarding the number of hearings overall.

The school system takes steps each year to ensure it can better account for fair treatment of all students.

“Annually, we evaluate our Student Code of Conduct to determine if we need to make any adjustments due to new laws, trends, or concerns,” Thigpen said. “In addition, every couple of years we reach out to our community to solicit their input regarding our Student Code of Conduct. These efforts help to ensure our Student Code of Conduct is fair, firm, and flexible for all students.”

There were 1,670 hearings in GCPS last year, an increase of 81 from the previous school year. Male students accounted for 73% of hearings.

Bullying sees decline

Data showed a recent trend of decreased bullying cases in GCPS schools continued last year.

There were 202 referrals for bullying in the school system last year, the lowest in a four-year table showing bullying referrals since the 2015-16 school year. Last year’s bullying stats are 26.8% lower than they were in the 2015-16 school year, when there were 276 referrals. The cumulative number of bullying referrals has decreased each year.

While there were fewer referrals in high schools and elementary schools last year, middle school students accounted for more than half of the total bullying cases. The 25 additional bullying cases in middle schools last year was an increase of 30% from the 2017-18 school year.

The Gwinnett district has partnered with the Anti-Defamation League, which champions the “No Place for Hate” initiative by recognizing schools the form student committees or host activities that combat bias and bullying.