The number of fights reported at Gainesville Middle School is five times higher now than in 2015.
In the 2018-2019 school year, 167 fights were documented for the school’s 1,935 student population, according to discipline data from the Georgia Department of Education. That number is higher than any other school in Hall County, including Gainesville High School, which reported 49 fights last school year. The school that comes closest is East Hall Middle with 83 fights last school year in a population of 1,115 students.
“I was surprised to see that number of 167 this past year,” Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Jeremy Williams said. “The severity of those is very wide.”
Fighting could be two kids having a minor scuffle in the hallway or a blood-inducing fist fight.
The safety of the school came under scrutiny after a mother made a video on social media in December complaining of her son being bullied. She is accused of threatening violence at the school and remains at the Hall County Jail.
Members of the Newtown Florist Club created a group called Parents Rebuilding the Village in response to their concerns about bullying in the Gainesville school district.
The group hosted a bullying forum on Dec. 30 to address issues in the school system and inspire other communities to combat bullying.
Gainesville Middle had one report of bullying last school year, seven in 2017-2018 and 31 in 2016-2017.
The school tracks several different types of incidents, including fighting, bullying, weapon possession and other student incivility.
The middle school had six incidents last year in which a student brought a knife onto school property. In 2017-2018, the school reported two firearms and three knives brought to school.
Williams said since he was hired in 2017, the system has pushed an internal program called Educator’s Handbook. This allows teachers to report both good and negative incidents that happen in their classrooms.
He said within the past couple of years, the school has done a better job of reporting incidents.
“As a dad, I feel like the middle school is safe,” he said. “There’s always fear any time a kid goes to middle school because you don’t know the teachers, and you don’t know many of the students.”
Most students at Gainesville Middle, 80%, were not involved in an incident of fighting, weapon possession or other incivility during the last school year. Williams said 5% of the 414 reported students had repeat cases of three or more incidents.
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Georgia has its own definition of a “persistently dangerous school,” but no Georgia school has been labeled as such since 2005, according to the Department of Education.
For a school to be persistently dangerous, it must have at least one student found by official tribunal action to have violated a school rule related to a violent criminal offense. This includes aggravated battery, aggravated sexual battery, armed robbery, arson, kidnapping, murder and other offenses.
The crime must have taken place on campus or at a school-sanctioned event.
The other criteria includes finding at least 2% of the student population or 10 students who have violated school rules related to criminal offenses, like non-felony drugs, felony drugs, felony weapons or terroristic threats.
If a school has any combination of these cases for three consecutive years, it would be categorized as a persistently dangerous school. Once this occurs, the school district is required to give students the option of transferring to a safe public school.
Although Gainesville Middle doesn’t reach the state’s criteria for being dangerous, some of the school’s faculty members fear it’s on the verge.
The Times spoke with a group of three teachers from Gainesville Middle on Thursday, Jan. 30. The teachers asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions to their careers.
“We’re not dangerous now,” one teacher said of the school. “But, it’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when, if things don’t change.”
The group considers themselves “seasoned teachers” who love their students and want them to succeed.
“I can say that we really care about our school, and I hate seeing what it has become,” one teacher said. “You can blame the kids, the community, but like the Newtown Florist Club has said, something is broke. Something is different. We feel it too.”
Abraham Trujillo — a seventh grader at Gainesville Middle — said he has witnessed bullying at his school but doesn’t see it as any worse than other schools.
He is a member of the local Boy Scouts Troop 15, which is composed of several Gainesville Middle students. Bill Christian, assistant Scoutmaster, said he teaches the boys ways to prevent bullying in school.
“It’s just simple,” Abraham said. “It’s just respect, and treating people the way you want to be treated. I know it’s cliche, but it’s true.”
Parents getting involved
Griselda Garcia, who has two children at the middle school, said she makes a point to talk to her kids about bullying, so they can prevent it.
“I tell them that you have to respect people and that some are different from us,” Garcia said. “I tell my boy and girl, if someone bullies you, don’t pay attention to them. That’s what bullies want, attention.”
If more parents were involved in their kids’ lives, fewer instances of fighting, bullying and other incidents would happen, the group of teachers said.
“Parents, come be with your kids,” one teacher advised. “Sit in the class with your kids. If teachers call, don’t automatically be like, “What did my kid do today?”
The teachers said the parents who don’t cooperate with them and show zero involvement typically have the children with the most problems.
Garcia said she tries to attend as many school meetings as possible.
Even though Gainesville Middle has nearly 2,000 students, Garcia said normally around 10 parents attend the meetings. The middle school holds them in the morning and afternoon, to accommodate people’s schedules.
“That surprised me,” she said. “Parents say that they’re sometimes mad with the teachers and the school, but they never go to the meetings. Some people don’t help because they don’t care. It is your responsibility as a parent to support them.”
Joy Griffin has one child in sixth grade and another in seventh. Both of her boys stay active in school robotics, baseball and basketball. Griffin said she has never felt like the school was an unsafe environment for her children.
“By being super involved in those group opportunities, they’ve never come home with a story about seeing someone bullied or experiencing that,” Griffin said. “My kids have been in the Gainesville City School system since kindergarten, and we have had nothing but love and incredible academics.”
Reporting an incident
When presented with the school’s recorded incident data from the Department of Education, the group of anonymous teachers said it wasn’t an accurate representation of Gainesville Middle because not all incidents are reported.
With hundreds of kids moving in and out of classes throughout the day, not all teachers have time to report an incident, nor the motivation to do so.
The teachers said they face many hurdles with implementing discipline. The top two are inconsistency in consequences and motivation to improve numbers rather than accurately report incidents.
“I feel like the problem is there’s not consistent discipline,” a teacher said. “I have a kid who curses out a teacher and gets no consequences because there’s not consistent discipline.”
Williams said there are a couple of different methods of notifying administrators of a serious incident. Teachers can put the account in the Educator’s Handbook, walk down and tell the assistant principal of the issue, send an email to administration or use the call button in class to summon assistance.
“If we can create an environment where they can feel comfortable telling us something about it, then we can do something about it,” Williams said. “As much as teachers are taught to teach, the No. 1 thing they have to do to teach effectively is classroom management.”
Although teachers can use the Educator’s Handbook, not all of them feel inclined to make the report.
Gainesville Middle’s goal this year is to reduce referrals of student incidents by 3% from last year. The idea is that if teachers are handling discipline properly, then their referral rate should go down.
The group of teachers said what’s seen on paper doesn’t always reflect reality. They said they feel the school has created a culture that frowns upon reporting incidents.
“Imagine if you were a police officer and you were told, ‘Whoever writes the least amount of speeding tickets gets a raise,’' one teacher said. “That’s exactly what you’re doing. How can that be a safer school?”
Williams said the system is not encouraging teachers to stop making reports but to be more dedicated in dealing with situations so they naturally decline.
“If you don’t do anything, the numbers will just continue to go,” he said. “If you’re more proactive in providing the support and being aware of situations, your discipline referrals will go down.”
What are the consequences?
Last school year, Gainesville Middle had 445 cases of in-school suspension and 371 for out-of-school suspension.
If a student brings a weapon or drugs to school or displays chronic misbehavior, Williams said they’re usually sent to the system’s alternative school, Gainesville Learning Academy.
The alternative school is located at Gainesville High School and serves both middle and high schoolers. Misty Freeman, Gainesville Middle’s principal, said around five of her students are attending the alternative school.
Instead of sending problematic students straight to Gainesville Learning Academy, the middle school offers the Success Lab.
Freeman said the class began last school year as a transitional environment for students.
A child may spend time in the Success Lab, then go back to learning in their normal classroom, or they could go before or after attending alternative school.
“We have students who, over time, do better in smaller groups,” Williams said. “The Success Lab is just a small group environment where the kids are being nurtured. People running those classrooms love on them and have structures for those kids to be successful.”
Freeman said the school has about six kids of different grade levels learning in the Success Lab.
Not all kids can positively change their behavior from good classroom management or going to the Success Lab. The group of teachers said in some cases, they would prefer to send a child to the alternative school.
Freeman said when a child seems beyond help in a classroom and is hurting the other students’ ability to learn, teachers are encouraged to reach out for “connections.”
For example, if a child responds better to an athletic coach, then the student will receive help from that coach.
“We find what the connection is with the kid, so that if the teacher doesn’t have the connection, we can use the mentor that’s in the building or the resources we have, the counselors,” Freeman said.
Four counselors work with students to reach the heart of their issues. The school also works with outside agencies like Empowering Youth, which sends counselors to spend time with kids, and Avita Community Partners, which offers mental health support and crisis prevention.
For the past couple of years Gainesville Middle has implemented a positive behavioral interventions and supports approach, which encourages good behavior and focuses on prevention rather than punishment.
PBIS goes hand-in-hand with the district's “4Rs” motto — ready, respectful, responsible, role model. This year, Freeman said the teachers intentionally taught students the meaning of each R.
At the beginning of the school year, she said the sixth graders were repeatedly hitting others on the back of the neck.
“Horseplay leads to a fight,” Freeman said. “We teach that every day. We repeat ourselves over and over. They have stopped because we set that expectation.”
At around 2,000 students, Gainesville Middle is well above the facility’s capacity of 1,475.
Building a new middle school to accommodate this growth has been on the district’s radar for years. If the education special purpose local option sales tax is approved on March 25, Williams said $32 million will go toward adding a middle school in the area of Gainesville Exploration and Mundy Mill academies.
Williams said the second middle school would automatically alleviate 600-650 students from Gainesville Middle, once it opens. He expects to break ground in a year.
Gainesville Middle has taken other strides to be safer, including hiring a second school resource officer last year, adding electronic card readers to the building’s entrances for staff, implementing mental health first-aid training with teachers and having fewer kids changing classes at the same time.
Williams said by limiting the number of large group interactions, the school can better prevent incidents like fights from occurring. In the last couple of years, he said the administrators and teachers have worked to stagger class changes so not all 2,000 students crowd into the hallways at the same time.
The middle school also plans to start the “No One Eats Alone” program for sixth graders in March. The kids will have the opportunity to meet all of their fellow students and learn the social skills of introducing themselves.
“It’s basically getting to know people that you don’t know, so that when you go to lunch, no matter where you’re sitting or who you’re sitting by, you can have a conversation,” Williams said.
Even though Williams said the future of Gainesville Middle looks promising, he noted there’s still room for improvement.
“Getting adults on the same page is our goal to make sure that we can attack things effectively through PBIS, through Success Lab, through the alternative school, through The Hub, through any support that our kids need,” he said “It’s us getting on the same page.”