SPECIAL REPORT: Records show fewer expulsions, parents/teachers say there’s more to new discipline process than numbers

Aiken County Public Schools 2016-2017 Student Code of Conduct.

AIKEN COUNTY, S.C. (WJBF) – Aiken County students started the school year with a completely restructured Student Code of Conduct.

Superintendent Dr. Sean Alford calls it a “move in the right direction.”

Overall expulsions have been declining, but are the new approaches to discipline working?

WJBF Newschannel 6’s Stefany Bornman has a special investigation into discipline in Aiken County schools.

This investigation began in November of 2015 when WJBF NewsChannel 6 received several emails from teachers and parents.

Teachers say there’s a disconnect between them and administrators, about their role when it comes to discipline.

Out of 41 schools and more than 24,000 students only 1 student was kicked out in the first semester of 2016.

WJBF NewsChannel 6 has uncovered there’s more to the new discipline philosophy than just numbers.

The sound of the school bell is not one Emily Lucas is familiar with anymore, because her mom pulled her out of school.

“She was bullied, she was beat up, she was victimized, and she was ganged against,” Sumer McCollum told WJBF NewsChannel 6.

McCollum has chosen to home-school her 8th grader because she says the lack of discipline, in Aiken County Public Schools, is giving kids the impression they can do whatever they want.

McCollum says it all started when she got a call that her daughter was sitting in the nurse’s office.

“I had talked to the teacher that broke-up the fight,” McCollum said. “I talked to the assistant principal and she tells me well Emily started it.”

She says the other girl involved in the fight told administrators Emily pushed her, but she says the fight started when Emily was at her locker.

McCollum told WJBF NewsChannel 6 the other girl beat Emily’s head against the locker flinging her into the wall.

At Superintendent Alford’s recommendation the Board of Education restructured its Code of Conduct in 2015, by creating a Steering Committee, of parents and staff, to review and modify the code.

“If a policy allows me to address a student issue with a range of dispositions and/or response. Then I can asses that student circumstance, that altercation, and assign what I believe is an appropriate response.” Alford said. “That’s policy and that’s using the policy, but if over the years we’ve all just grown very comfortable with if a student fights then without considering what took place in the fight, without considering the range of options we have, our practice is if you fight you are going to get arrested. You are going to get expelled.”

Dr. Alford prefers a different, but more personal, approach to dealing with students who make mistakes.

He feels it’s important to teach students how to act and not punish them in a way that interrupts learning.

“So the policy doesn’t have to change. It’s just a matter of helping individuals realize is this practice appropriate?” Alford told WJBF NewsChannel 6.

Alford told WJBF NewsChannel 6 if we compared the two codes of conduct, we wouldn’t see much difference.

WJBF NewsChannel 6 did just that and there were some noticeable changes.

  • The new code is separated into grade levels and it puts the discipline decision-making on principals.
  • It also changed the tribunal hearing process to a Hearing Officer format.
  • The district also moved to an online system for tracking student violations, known as ABE.

According to school records:

  • In the first semester of the 2016 – 2017 school year there was 1 expulsion.
  • In the first semester of the 2015 – 2016 school year there were 5 expulsions.
  • There was a total of 81 expulsions in the 2015 – 2016 school year.

Click here to read district expulsion records. 

“I don’t know about everybody else, but I’ve made poor decisions in my life as an adolescent, as a young man. I’m just glad that no one chose to throw me away or deny me an opportunity to continue to learn,” said Alford.

It’s that philosophy, of taking the focus away from punishment, that has some parent’s worried teachers have their hands tied.

“They don’t want to deal with expulsions anymore. They can’t do it now.” A parent, who asked to keep their identity hidden, told WJBF NewsChannel 6.

In a letter obtained by WJBF NewsChannel 6 a teacher says:

“the discipline policy and inconsistent enforcement is making teachers jobs a living nightmare. We are constantly reminded by administration we aren’t going to kick students out or send them to alternative school because we must help rehabilitate them.”

The teacher says administrators seem to believe teachers can change students, but that’s hard to accomplish when students know they can act out without facing consequences.

While the number of reported fights are down, McCollum knows of one altercation that was worthy of an expulsion.

“The girl who beat up on her, that whooped up on her, should have been expelled because there was actions with that. I mean the concussion, the kidney bleed.” McCollum said.

In Emily’s case a police report describes the incident as Simple Assault.

Still, McCollum says the other student was only temporarily transferred to Pinecrest School, an alternative school in Aiken County.

“If a 13-year-old beat up another 13-year-old and caused her to end up in the hospital with a kidney bleed, I mean, is that still making a mistake?” Asked WJBF NewsChannel 6’s Stefany Bornman.

“It certainly can be,” Alford said.

In another letter obtained by WJBF NewsChannel 6 a current administrator says the district gives each school a certain number of reserved spaces at the alternative school. Making it difficult for principals to recommend students for alternative placement.

“This is why when children fight, administrators are coding it as a hit/kick/push, because they catch the devil from the district office about fights,” the administrator said.

Click here to read the full administrator letter. 

“Do you think as a school district you to try to look for other alternatives to kicking a student out?” Asked WJBF NewsChannel 6’s Stefany Bornman.

“Absolutely and the code grants that. The code has always granted that leeway,” said Alford.

Despite Dr. Alford’s recommendation to review the old Student Code of Conduct, the Superintendent says he’s not involved in the disciplinary process.

Still, South Carolina law grants the Board of Education final authorization to expel students.

Alford says he believes in discipline without reservations, and knows it can be accomplished without punishment.

However, many parents have gone to extreme lengths pleading for a change, because at least one parent who can’t pull her kid out of school has resorted to giving her daughter heartbreaking advice.

“I told her, I said, I hate to say it but you go ahead and let her hit you. Let her hit you,” the parent said.

WJBF NewsChannel 6 did ask about video of the fight, but not all schools in Aiken County have surveillance cameras.

If you have any concerns, complaints, or know of something you feel should be investigated you can submit an anonymous tip here. 

To send in your ideas, comments, or tips please contact Stefany Bornman by email at sbornman@wjbf.com. 

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