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Alternative School teachers fear for their safety

By Greg Gelpi

Efforts to reduce recidivism at the Clayton County Alternative School are causing safety concerns for teachers.

Teachers no longer have the option of sending students with disciplinary problems to in-school suspension and teachers at the Alternative School, as well as all schools in the county, are being told to reduce office referrals by 10 percent.

The changes, which went into effect at the start of the semester, have teachers at the school worried about their safety and about the future of the school.

"I think the powers that be have tied our hands as far as how to deal with these kids," Donald Carson, who teaches at the school, said. "If I get a student who tells me to screw off, all I can do is take away a point."

The school system has implemented a "point system" as a new means of discipline. Points are awarded or taken away based on student behavior, Assistant Superintendent Luvenia Jackson, who oversees the Alternative School, said. The point system allows students to advance or regress to various levels of privileges.

"We haven't seen a change in behavior (in the past) and that's what this is all about," Jackson said.

The "school-wide behavior management program" has "tiers of success" which allow students to earn "intrinsic rewards" through proper behavior, she said. For instance, students can earn access to computers by earning points. The school is teaching pro-social skills in efforts to alter behavior.

Rather than focusing on punishment, the Alternative School is now focusing on education, Jackson said.

"I think they are positive changes we have done," Jackson said, adding that discipline at the school is shifting to focus on the causes of bad behavior, rather than on punishing students for the behavior. The goal is to change behavior and reduce the number of students who return to the Alternative School.

That doesn't sit well, though, with teachers, who fear the changes could place them in danger.

"If we can't do anything with them, then they're just going to stay the way they are," Carson said. "We have no avenue for dealing with these kids and our hands are tied. We have people higher up controlling things."

He said that efforts are being made to reduce the reports of school disciplinary problems, but that isn't reducing the actual number of school disciplinary problems.

"Do I think I could be hurt?" Carson asked. "Yes, I feel I can be hurt."

With the directive to reduce disciplinary referrals by 10 percent, he admitted feeling pressure to "overlook things." In his third year at the Alternative School, he said the situation has become a "lot worse."

Jackson said there is no pressure to ignore inappropriate behavior in order to meet the goal of reducing referrals by 10 percent.

Dana Edwards, a Georgia State University assistant professor of Counseling and Psychological Services, said that it is her experience, however, that such mandates result in less reporting.

"It could be that there is less violence or it could be that it's just not being reported," Edwards, who has expertise in school-related issues, said.

She said that it's important for school systems to provide "tools" to enable teachers to discipline and control their students.

"We have no recourse," Carson said. "We have no place to put them. Basically, they're asking us to fix a problem with a Band-Aid."

Isolating students with in-school suspension shouldn't be the first recourse at an alternative school, Jackson said, although, she added, that there are opportunities for "quiet time" for misbehaving students.

The concern is also for "consistency," said Jane Hayes, a psychotherapist often used as a legal expert in Clayton County on student discipline.

"As long as they don't have consistency in the consequences, the children will continue to break the rules," she said. "My feeling is that you're going to have more problems in a regular class."

Hayes supports discipline in which appropriate behavior advances students to various levels, as is now done at the Alternative School, but said that it's also important to find something that students will "buy into."

The changes in discipline are only part of the changes at the school, including changing the school from a half day to a full day, Jackson said.

While changes have been made, Carson, a 6-foot-4-inch 240-pound teacher, said school staff is worried about changes that have not been made, including a request to place metal detectors at the school. As it is, he said anyone can walk in and out of the back door of the school undetected.

According to Clayton County Police Capt. Jeff Turner, there has not been an increase in fights at the Alternative School as compared with this time last year.