Last week, a threatening message written on a Gainesville High School bathroom wall led to a search of the school and heightened security the next day.
Such problems put a focus on student discipline, a facet of public education the Gainesville and Hall County school districts take seriously.
“We have a code of conduct that all of our principals in all of our 33 schools follow with just some broad guidelines,” said Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield. “... About 99 percent of discipline issues are going to involve the leader within that building. And there’s no one in a better position to be part of that judgment call than the principal who knows the background, the kids involved, who knows the situation.”
Both districts have a districtwide discipline policy, or code of conduct.
In Hall County, the Code of Conduct, available on the district’s website, states that circumstances must be considering when disciplining a student, including a student’s attitude, prior conduct, remorse, parental involvement and maturity, as well as the seriousness of the offense.
“When it is necessary to impose discipline, school administrators and teachers will follow a progressive discipline process,” the code states. “A major consideration in the application of the code is that the disciplinary action taken by school officials be the least extreme measure that can resolve the discipline problem.”
Disciplinary actions allowed by the schools include a verbal warning, loss of privileges, timeout, temporary removal from class, parental notification, corporal punishment, detention, suspension and expulsion.
Though principals say corporal punishment is rarely, if ever, used by school administrators, the code of conduct allows it and defines it as “physical punishment of a student by a school official in the presence of another school official.”
In Gainesville City Schools’ disciplinary policy, the same permitted disciplinary actions are listed with the exception of corporal punishment.
Actions that warrant disciplinary actions range in severity from disrespectful conduct and profane language to bullying, assault and possession of drugs or weapons.
Jimmy Lawler, assistant principal and athletic director at Flowery Branch High School, handles boys’ discipline at the school. Lawler said disciplinary cases fall to administrators after a teacher has referred a student.
“It varies from student to student,” Lawler said. “We do follow a progressive discipline scale, meaning we’ll start with possibly a warning for minor things, then maybe a detention, and so on.”
Chestatee High Principal Suzanne Jarrard agreed, and said discipline has to be specific to each student and situation.
At the middle school level, Gainesville Middle School Principal Ken Martin said disciplinary measures can be a teaching moment for students.
“When students enter the middle school, they are going through so many changes, plus they are in a much larger environment that enables them to have much more freedom,” Martin said. “We feel like we have to teach them some of those things that, as they get older and more responsible, they need to learn in a different light.”
Lawler said it’s important for teachers and school officials to realize discipline won’t reach every student. He said in most cases, there is a way for a student to be disciplined in a way from which they can learn and improve.
But not every student will learn.
“In some cases, the first form of discipline —maybe a phone call to the parents— will correct it,” Lawler said. “Then other students, you never see a change in their behavior.”
Both districts’ policies regarding discipline state the purpose is twofold: to help teachers ensure order and respect in the classroom, and to help the students learn and improve as individuals.
Both Lawler and Jarrard said a child is most likely to improve behaviorally if the parents are aware of the problem and involved in helping the child improve.
“The majority of the time it is effective, especially when you can partner with a parent,” Jarrard said. “That, to me, is one of the most effective means. Partnering with the school system and parent to try to redirect the behavior is the best option for the student.”