Brittany D. McClure
The Valdosta Daily Times
Recently there have been reports in the national news of incidents in schools about a child being arrested for having a butter knife in their lunch box or a high schooler being expelled for something they wrote on their Twitter account.
When it comes to school discipline, how far is too far? At a Valdosta Board of Education meeting on April 9, board member Warren Lee said, “We’ve given kids records that shouldn’t have gotten records with the police department.”
Lee suggested that discipline procedures for fighting in the city school system have gotten out of hand, so this week, the Times spoke with both systems to see how each deals with the issue.
Valdosta City Schools
Currently in the Valdosta High School code of student conduct book, policy states that at “principal discretion”, law enforcement may be contacted.
According to Assistant Superintendent of Finance Marty Roesch, when two or more students are involved in a fight, there is immediate administrative discretion and depending on the severity, those students will be referred to the school’s Resource Officer.
“We don’t have the power or the authority to arrest students,” said Roesch.
The Valdosta City School system has a memorandum of understanding with the Valdosta Police Department to report each incident.
Roesch stated that these sort of memorandums are common practice for school systems who partner with various agencies.
“Like any other agency, you have working relationships with other agencies,” said Roesch.
The memorandum states that school resource officers (SRO) will “respond to situations as needed” and “notify a school administrator when there is a discipline problem in any area of the school”. When a child is participating in a fight, it is common practice to involve a police officer.
While fights are not a daily issue in the city school system, there are instances where students have been arrested for fighting. A behavior that once would have warranted a phone call to a parent can now potentially lead to an arrest record that could very well prevent a child from getting into a good college or label that child as a disciplinary problem for the rest of their years in school.
Lowndes County Schools
“You’re going to have to deal with fights,” said Superintendent of Lowndes County Schools Dr. Steve Smith. “Children have been fighting since the beginning of time.”
According to LCS’s student parent handbook, the first offense after fighting is five days suspension with parent conference prior to return of school. It isn’t until the second offense that a possible referral to law
“We don’t want to label a child as a criminal because of a routine fight at school,” said Smith. “We don’t invoke the death sentence.”
However, this does not mean that the LCS system takes fighting lightly. Even in instances of self-defense, a child still has the potential of being punished.
According to Smith, if a child physically engages in a fight out of defense, they will be reprimanded for fighting. Though their punishment may not be as severe as the aggressor, essentially, a student can be punished for defending themselves.
However, in the real world if a person is attacked, they have the right defend themselves without punishment of the law.
School policy and the law
Parents often don’t understand how something can be illegal on school grounds but not illegal anywhere else.
For example, if a child were to bring an air gun or water pistol on campus at the city schools, that child could be arrested for possessing a weapon — it doesn’t matter if it is on their person, in their locker, or in their vehicle in the parking lot. A notice in VCS’s code of conduct that cites O.C.G.A. 16-11-127.1 states:
“The term “weapon” means and includes any pistol, revolver, or any other weapon designed and intended to propel a missile of any kind.”
The punishment is listed as a fine of not more than $10,000; imprisonment for not less than two nor more than ten years, or both.
The county code of conduct defines “weapon” similarly as, “The possession, use, or intention to use an instrument or object to inflict harm on another person, or to intimidate any person.”
In other words, a child can be expelled or arrested for possessing an air gun or pellet gun, although they are not illegal to possess. According to Roesch, it’s all about the intent and as an administrator you have to ask yourself, why did the child bring it to school?
“There’s zero tolerance for weapons or anything perceived to be a weapon,” said Roesch.
At the VCS board meeting Monday night, Lee stated that he would be watching the school system “real close” as they work on their disciplinary study. According to Dr. Bill Cason, Superintendent of Valdosta City Schools, a large part of what the fighting policy reformation is about is to make sure students are afforded their due process rights.
“I think we need to do that,” said Cason.
While reforming the policy is very important to Cason, his number one goal remains focused on maintaining an environment that’s conducive to learning.
“My primary focus is to make sure we have quality instruction the full day,” said Cason.
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