ONLY ON 3: How safe are Hamilton County schools? - WSMV Channel 4

FIRST ON 3: How safe are Hamilton County schools?

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CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -  Hamilton County Schools, with its diverse blend of affluence and poverty, reflects a trend of "disproportionate discipline" that is being debated nationwide: black students receive harsher, more frequent punishments than white students.  Officials with the U.S. Department of Education have expressed concern over racial disparities, or what District 5 School Board member Jeffrey Wilson calls a "discipline gap."  The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights says that black students are far more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students.

 (Channel 3 Eyewitness News examined 439 pages of district-wide school discipline reports from the past year and a half. In Hamilton County, where white students outnumber black students almost 2-1, the discipline reports reflect the national trend. In the 2011-12 school year, of a reported 28,069 reported rules violations, black students accounted for 15,860 of them, or 56.5%. White students were written up 11,160 times, or just under 40%. During the first semester of the current school year, the black-white discipline gap is even larger: 58% to 38%.  The statistics were similar when serious offenses, resulting in expulsions, were compared.  In the 2011-12 school year, 121 black students were expelled, while 93 white students were expelled.) 

"We lose a lot of freshmen and sophomores." 

 Board member Wilson and some other members of the black community agree with the findings of a 2011 study by the Tennessee Advisory Committee on Civil Rights, which suggests school discipline practices "push too many African American children out of school." Nitorius Cooley, a junior at Howard School says he sees too many of his friends "out in the streets" after being suspended or expelled from school. "They get so far behind, they feel like they can't catch up. Some of them go back and get their GED, but most of them just don't want to." Howard junior Derelle Roshell said, "We have the programs in place to help them catch up, it's not like the school isn't trying." Classmate Winston Clay, also a junior said, "There needs to be more personal connection between teachers and students. Every student should have one teacher who tracks that student to make sure he or she doesn't get in a situation where they're too behind to come back and complete their studies."

Wilson, whose district includes predominantly black Brainerd High School, says that principals have to make their school a safe environment. Last year, Brainerd reported 906 total rule violations, some as minor as talking in class, tardiness or dress code infractions. But also included are 11 write-ups for student assaults, 67 for fighting, 19 for illegal drugs, and one (a 14-year-old male) for possession of a handgun. 9th and 10th graders accounted for 523 of the 906 violations, and most of the 11 expulsions as well. "We lose a lot of freshmen and sophomores who never come back," Wilson said. "We need to look very carefully at who' s being expelled and suspended, and why. Are classroom teachers using the best judgment before they send these students to the administration?"

McDade: Race is not the deciding factor in discipline

Dr. Lee McDade, Hamilton County's assistant superintendent for campus support, is the district's point man on discipline issues. He often hears the appeals from students who are contesting their suspension or expulsion. A former high school principal at Lookout Valley, McDade has heard the complaints about the racial discipline gap. "It doesn't matter to me if they're purple," McDade said firmly. "I've been a principal, it's a tough job. Our principals are doing what they have to do to keep their campuses safe. If you bring a gun to school, I don't care what color you are, it's zero tolerance, and we're going to enforce that."

Guns and drugs found on school property

McDade released figures showing that ten handguns, shotguns or rifles were found on school property last year, and five have been confiscated already this year. "Some of them were loaded, some were not, some were found in the parking lot," McDade said. "Students do a good job of reporting to administrators when they see a gun on campus. I've heard some pretty good excuses, but in this day and time, you just can't do that. If you're going hunting, or going to target practice, leave your gun home and go get it after school." As for drugs, McDade said, "We find everything from marijuana to Oxycodone and various prescription medications. We can't stress enough that parents need to be responsible and keep their medications out of the reach of their children. If they bring that stuff to school, they'll have problems."

Elementary discipline issues on the rise

Also of concern is the increasing number of elementary students involved in fights, teacher/staff assaults, and somewhat surprisingly, sexual harassment violations. At Clifton Hills Elementary last year, five students were written up for assaults on teachers; all were girls. At Hillcrest Elementary, two students were suspended for aggravated assault on teacher or staff.  At Wolftever Elementary, a 6-year-old boy brought alcohol to school. One school resource officer, who asked not to be identified said, "We're seeing younger students do things at age 7 or 8, that we didn't see a generation or two ago. Many of them are raised by young parents who teach their children not to respect authority, but to resent it." McDade added, "Some of these little boys don't really know what sexual harassment is. They're acting out what they've seen at home or in their neighborhood, and we have to be the ones to set them straight."

Some schools have few discipline referrals

Among other findings in the discipline reports: many elementary schools report very few rule breakers on their campuses, and their violations are rarely of a serious nature: during the 2011-12 school year, Lookout Mountain Elementary and Thrasher Elementary, considered among the county's most affluent schools reported only 2 rules violations each. Others with low discipline referrals included Soddy Elementary (6), Spring Creek (20), Westview (13), Apison (34), Normal Park (33), Ooltewah Elementary (10), Red Bank Elementary (35), Falling Water (12), Ganns Middle Valley (20), Snow Hill (25), CSLA (27) and Sale Creek Middle-High (67).

Middle school girls: the problem years

The gender gap, showing boys get in more trouble than girls at school, is most noticeable in the elementary and high school levels. In middle school, however, an increasing number of girls are being written up for fights, student/teacher assaults, and theft. Typically in elementary school, at least 80% of rules violations are attributed to boys; in middle school, that number shrinks to less than 70%. Among the incidents in the 2011-12 year, two female students at Hunter Middle School were expelled for assaulting a teacher; another female student at Normal Park Upper School was expelled for possession of drugs on campus; at Soddy-Daisy Middle School, 19 students were written up for fighting, 9 of them were girls; and at East Ridge Middle School, of the 31 students who were written up for fighting, 17 were girls.

McDade: 9th grade is the most difficult year

McDade calls 9th grade "the most difficult year, by far." He said 9th graders often have trouble adjusting to the more rigid requirements of high school, and tend to "act out in class, and question authority." The numbers prove him out; students between the ages of 12-16 dominate the discipline reports, with 9th graders topping the list in many of the more violent categories. There were also glaring differences between middle and high schools in the same communities. Soddy-Daisy High reported 535 rule violations last year; neighboring Soddy-Daisy Middle had more than twice as many, 1173. The difference was even more noticeable at Tyner Middle and High, which are across the street from each other. The high school only reported 157 rule violations last year, while the middle school wrote up 680 incidents.

McDade said, "In some cases, some principals enforce the rules a little tighter. But other times, the middle school students just haven't learned how to behave yet." He added that due to the differing interpretations of enforcing rules, parents shouldn't draw conclusions when they see one school with hundreds of discipline reports, and a neighboring school with far less. "Some teachers and principals are just stricter about some things. One way to look at it is, if they have a lot of minor rule violations written up, they might be doing a good job keeping kids in line."

Expulsions up; discipline tighter

In the 2011-12 school year, Brainerd High expelled 11 students, Central High expelled 16, Dalewood expelled 16, East Hamilton expelled 2, East Ridge High expelled 31, Hixson High 5, Howard 18, Lookout Valley 4, Normal Park Upper 1, Ooltewah High 5, Ooltewah Middle 8, Red Bank High 12, Sequoyah 14, and Soddy-Daisy High 14.

Brainerd High, which expelled 11 students in the 2011-12 school year, was far ahead of that pace this year under new principal Uras Agee. In the first semester, 16 Brainerd students were expelled. In the overall discipline reports, Brainerd had 906 in the 2011-12 school year. In the first semester of this year, Brainerd had written up 1101 violations. McDade said, "Mr. Agee has high expectations, he is setting the standards for behavior at Brainerd." So far this year, two students have been expelled for having handguns on the Brainerd campus: a 14-year-old male and a 16-year old male. Last year, there were 2 reported assaults on teachers or staff members. This year, so far there have been 6. McDade points out the difference between "assault" and "aggravated assault." If it's aggravated assault, there is usually a weapon or any kind of device that could result in injury, even a pencil. Thankfully that doesn't happen too often, and it's a very serious offense. On the other hand, if they're written up for assault on a teacher or staff member, it's usually pushing or shoving, some kind of contact, like when a teacher is trying to break up a fight."

This year's issues: guns and assaults

In the current school year, a 13-year-old male student brought a handgun to Brown Middle School; two 8-year-old boys were suspended for aggravated assault on a teacher at Clifton Hills Elementary; also at Clifton Hills, a 10 year old boy was suspended for possession of illegal drugs; a 13-year-old male was suspended at Dalewood Middle for aggravated assault on a teacher; a 13-year-old female student at Dalewood was suspended for possession of a handgun; and 15 Dalewood students have been expelled.

Also this year, a student at East Hamilton was suspended for having a handgun on campus; four East Lake Elementary students were disciplined for assaulting a teacher; a 13-year-old male student at East Lake (Middle) Academy was expelled for a non-lethal firearm; 21 students have been expelled at East Ridge High; an 11-year-old East Ridge Middle student was suspended for aggravated assault on a teacher; two Howard High students were expelled for assaulting a teacher; four other Howard students were expelled for possession of drugs; an 8-year-old Lakeside Academy student was suspended for assaulting a teacher; a 13-year-old male at Loftis Middle School was suspended for possession of a rifle or shotgun; another male Loftis student was expelled for a "threat,"; a 12-year-old boy was suspended at Normal Park Upper School for assaulting a teacher, and 2 female students got in trouble for assaulting a teacher at Sequoyah High (one was expelled, the other was suspended).

Elementary offenses this year

Some of the youngest suspensions this year were at Rivermont Elementary, where a 5-year-old boy was caught with a non-lethal firearm; a 6-year-old boy at Soddy Elementary was suspended for assaulting a teacher or staff member; an 11-year old boy at Wolftever Elementary was suspended for a bomb threat; a 5-year-old boy at Woodmore Elementary was suspended for assaulting a teacher; two male Spring Creek Elementary students were suspended for assaulting a teacher; and an 11-year-old girl at Wallace A. Smith Elementary was expelled for a theft offense.

"This superintendent stresses discipline"

McDade understands the criticism from some quarters about the correlation between strict discipline and drop-out rates, but said, "This superintendent (Rick Smith) stresses discipline and school safety. It's what we talk about at principals meetings. We don't like to expel anyone, but if it's a zero tolerance offense, we follow the rules. We have an alternative school, we have an Adult High School, we have virtual school online. We encourage students to catch up, and not get behind. We're trying to help them, we really are. And I feel our schools are safe."

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