SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS: Clarke County School District parent and former teacher Karen Sweeney Gerow is pictured speaking at a Cedar Shoals High School PTO meeting on Wed., Feb. 17. CSHS students, parents and Athens community members all posed questions to Superintendent Dr. Philip D. Lanoue and other key individuals regarding the alleged sexual assault that took place at CSHS on Jan. 7. “When you allow rapists to stay in school for three weeks, that does endanger other students,” Gerow said. Photo by Julie Alpaugh. Graphic by Kevin Mobley.
By KEVIN MOBLEY – Editor-in-Chief, ODYSSEY Newsmagazine
The Clarke County School District community is currently recuperating from events that have spurred debates, leaving many feeling that issues and breakdowns have reached a boiling point.
Before the lights were turned on, before packets were printed, before chairs were set out and the doors opened to the H.T. Edwards Building, Ray Clark, former Barnett Shoals Elementary School principal and longtime Clarke County School District educator, made his prediction about the attendance of concerned community members at the CCSD’s April 7 forum on discipline.
“I know (the school board) doesn’t have a room large enough to handle them,” Clark said. “I think they’re playing ostrich. I hope they listen.”
More than 200 community members–parents, teachers, students, staff, administrators, former faculty and others–filed into the ACCA to voice concerns about a wide range of topics and issues in the school district brought to public attention after an alleged rape at Cedar Shoals High School on Jan. 7.
“In Clarke County, I don’t see improving school climate as a goal. It’s not something that’s really been discussed,” Cedar Shoals parent Shannon York said. “I think we’re kind of at the point where maybe everybody feels comfortable to speak out now and where we have to convince the school district that there is a problem.”
School district administrators and forum moderator Dr. Joe Whorton, former head of the University of Georgia’s Fanning Institute of Leadership Development, spent weeks following the forum compiling all of the points raised and concerns enumerated to review with the Board of Education and Superintendent Dr. Philip D. Lanoue.
The Board of Education released a 67-page document on Wed., May 18, addressing the results of the forum. Lanoue says these concerns will drive policy discussions in the coming months.
“On the discipline, attendance and the forum, a great forum … we’re not sure quite yet (of) the process, but we’re going to have to discuss, Number One, ‘Do we look at our policies? How do we look at them? What’s the process for reviewing them?’” Lanoue said. “I think we’re still kind of on the front end of that.”
THE INITIAL EVENTS
Concerns about school discipline, attendance and safety have “probably always been along the surface underneath there,” Lanoue says, but dissenting community response dates back to the Athens Banner-Herald report on Feb. 4 of the Jan. 30 and Feb. 1 arrests of three CSHS students who were accused of the rape.
These arrests came 23 days after the incident was reported on Jan. 7 and 12 days after video surveillance of the event was retrieved on Jan. 18.
“Really kind of the whole piece, obviously, was the Cedar event, which was tragic in and of itself, but it happens, and you have to deal with it,” Lanoue said. “From there, we just began to ask a lot of questions. There’s a lot of internal questions to answer and certainly a lot of external questions people are asking.”
York was among eight Cedar Shoals community members who addressed issues of school security, attendance, behavior and a lack of communication with faculty and parents to the Board of Education at a board meeting on Feb. 11 at the H.T. Edwards building.
“Let’s go forward with changes to prevent any more terrible tragedies,” York said in her speech. “We deserve answers. The victim and her parents deserve answers.”
Clarke Central High School principal Dr. Robbie P. Hooker was present at the meeting.
“I was shocked at the lack of communication. Most parents at the board meeting knew more information than I did,” Hooker said. “Everyone there had some valid concerns.”
In her speech, York also called for an open public forum on the Cedar Shoals incident, which was then held by the school Parent-Teacher-Student Organization in the CSHS auditorium on Feb. 17.
“Let’s go forward with changes to prevent any more terrible tragedies. We deserve answers. The victim and her parents deserve answers.”
–SHANNON YORK, CCSD parent,
in her speech at the Feb. 11 CCSD Board Meeting
Cedar Shoals senior Angelina Choi was among members of the audience who asked questions of the panel comprised of Lanoue, law enforcement, representatives of The Cottage Sexual Assault Center and other key officials.
“I thought it was important for us students to take ownership of our school and the events that happened,” Choi said. “We did not like the way our school was being portrayed or how the district handled the matter.”
Choi feels administration has not involved students in discussions around reform.
“I don’t think students have equity at all,” Choi said. “We’re the ones being affected most by decisions like the ones that were made this semester, yet we had absolutely no say in any of the decisions. I believe students and teachers deserve much more say.”
Like Lanoue, Dr. Janet Frick, CCSD parent and Hilsman Middle School PTO President, feels concerns of parents, teachers and students were present before the news of the Cedar Shoals incident and that the circumstances of the case provided an opportunity to voice them.
“It seems pretty clear to me that had that story not come out in the (Athens) Banner-Herald, parents would’ve never known,” Frick said. “It was kind of a perfect storm sort of thing–a catalyst–and it certainly wasn’t like, “Oh gosh, concerns out of the blue.’ Some people had been raising concern, but it never seemed like enough to sink in.”
Lanoue and district administration responded by putting former Cedar Shoals principal Dr. Tony Price on administrative leave on Feb. 12, less than 24 hours after the board meeting.
Since then, Lanoue has also added positions on security staffs at both Clarke Central and Cedar Shoals, and has held meetings with school administrators to improve and standardize communications, both internal and external.
“We already went through and spent quite a bit of time with principals and making sure that they have a protocol. We put those in place probably within three weeks (after the CSHS incident) just because we wanted to make sure that we got that right,” Lanoue said. “I don’t think that we can always pick up everything if someone doesn’t do something or misses a beat, but I think we’re pretty close to making sure we’re on the same page.”
ALL EYES ON US: Clarke County School District Superintendent Dr. Philip D. Lanoue speaks to the crowd gathered at Cedar Shoals High School on Feb. 17 for the district panel hosted by the Cedar Shoals PTSO on the CSHS rape incident.
The guiding topic of the April 7 forum was school discipline, encompassing facets such as student behavior, skipping classes and consistency of behavior management.
“We’re doing a lot. We just have tremendous needs in our community, and sometimes when you look at that affective piece around human behavior, it’s not going to be causal. It’s not if I do ‘X,’ I’m automatically going to get ‘Y,’” Lanoue said. “You’re not going to see things change until you see them over time and start to see patterns, and we’re starting to see some patterns.”
In the past three years, Clarke Central and other CCSD schools have integrated the U.S. Department of Education’s Positive and Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) as a “guiding framework” for tiered discipline, according to one of its implementors, former CCSD behavior specialist Dr. LaKeisha Gantt. Gantt is now a staff psychologist at the UGA Health Center, while also serving on a multidisciplinary research team examining education, psychology and multiculturalism.
Gantt, who graduated from Clarke Central in 1996 and has also been a CCSD parent, worked in the CCSD from 2009-15 as a part-time counselor and then full-time behavior specialist, providing professional development for teachers and administrators relating to behavior, discipline, classroom/school climate and culture.
“What we initially saw was we’ve got to put some parameters, we need to add some structure and some objectivity to what it is we’re doing and some consistency across administrators,” Gantt said. “Discretion is good, but when discretion is guided by what I feel, not necessarily by guiding principles or sort of a multicultural approach, that can be dangerous.”
Still, Clark feels that based on his current experiences as a gifted teaching assistant at Hilsman Middle School, many students today lack “civility,” as he put it.
“A kid was walking on the other side of the hall, and I (motioned her to the right side), nothing verbal, and I got all kinds of lip. Seriously?” Clark said. “That kind of thing stops a lot of effective discipline.”
“Discretion is good, but when discretion is guided by what I feel, not necessarily by guiding principles or sort of a multicultural approach, that can be dangerous.”
–DR. LaKEISHA GANTT, former CCSD behavior specialist
York went a step further, recalling traumatic memories for her and her son while he was at Coile Middle School.
“He would just say hello to somebody, and they’d say, ‘Shut the f-ck up,’ or ‘Eff you, b-tch.’ I don’t even know if I can repeat some of this stuff that they called him,” York said. “(One day), I kept him home because he was just like, ‘I don’t wanna go back there.’ He was just in tears, and he was… it was awful, and I was really, really hurt.”
CSHS instructional coach Patti Huberty feels the current system of disciplining “disruptive behaviors,” such as “insubordination” and “rude or disrespectful behavior” as the CCSD Code of Student Conduct defines it, is flawed.
“Teaching high school the past three years, I have found the biggest challenge is creating logical consequences for misbehavior,” Huberty said. “Typically, the consequence for students who are misbehaving is to spend time in (In School Suspension), which is essentially rewarding them with the behavior they were initially exhibiting.”
Gantt indicates that in her time with the CCSD, many of her interventions dealt with these types of disruptive misbehaviors.
“A large part of my caseload was for the subjective categories: prudent disrespect, insubordination, incivility, very broad,” Gantt said. “There has to be a way that we identify what these things look like because what’s rude and disrespectful to me is different than what’s rude and disrespectful to you.”
“If your parents are arguing, they beat up each other and then one got arrested, then you have to come to school the next day, how would you feel when a teacher is telling you why didn’t you turn in work or why didn’t you do this? You’re thinking, ‘What’s gonna happen when I get home? Will dad be out of jail? Who’s gonna pay the bills?'”
–DR. ROBBIE P. HOOKER, CCHS principal
Hooker notes that, too, there can be underlying causes to misbehavior as a result of poverty and other factors, the effects of which many cannot truly understand.
“I dealt with a situation a couple weeks ago. A kid comes into the office. I’m getting ready to suspend him. The first thing he says is, ‘My dad was arrested last night for beating my mom. I didn’t get any sleep.’ If your parents are arguing, they beat up each other and then one got arrested, then you have to come to school the next day, how would you feel when a teacher is telling you why didn’t you turn in work or why didn’t you do this? You’re thinking, ‘What’s gonna happen when I get home? Will dad be out of jail? Who’s gonna pay the bills?’–or going home at night and there are no lights,” Hooker said. “I wish our student body could go through a poverty simulation so they can see actually some kids or what our kids in poverty experience.”
According to Lanoue, CCSD administrators have worked with support specialists like Gantt to establish consistent expectations to guide teachers, security and administration in enforcing discipline.
“We did a lot of work about understanding cultural competency–that people act differently based on their culture and where they’re from,” Lanoue said. “The bottom line is we don’t want to suspend kids because then they don’t want to come back, they’re not going to be successful, and we definitely don’t want to be disproportionate if, in fact, there are some things that we could be doing differently if we were more culturally or racially sensitive.”
A NATIONAL BATTLE
A 2012 case study for the U.S. Department of Education demonstrated evidence of disproportionality in K-12 schools in Maryland for “exclusionary discipline,” referring to suspensions and expulsions, associating these with disproportional discipline actions taken against predominantly black, male and special education students.
“I hear some people say, ‘What do you expect when you’re in a school that’s a majority black? Why shouldn’t there be more suspension of black students?’” Hooker said. “Just because you have more black students doesn’t mean they should be expelled more than anybody.”
The new guiding principles for behavior intervention in the CCSD like PBIS were initiated to reduce the level of disproportionate discipline, according to Hooker and Gantt.
“It’s a struggle all across the country when it comes to disproportionality,” Hooker said. “You have to do what’s right about all students, not just looking out for one student. Our tiered discipline plan, not all teachers agree with it, but it was developed not just by administrators. It was presented before the faculty in saying, ‘Here are our stats. This is what we need to do to make things better.’”
“I hear some people say, ‘What do you expect when you’re in a school that’s a majority black? Why shouldn’t there be more suspension of black students?’ Just because you have more black students doesn’t mean they should be expelled more than anybody.”
–DR. ROBBIE P. HOOKER, CCHS principal
Lanoue, the American Association of School Administrators’ National Superintendent of the Year in 2015, asserts that disproportionality is a nationwide issue among K-12 schools.
“Across the country, there’s large conversations occurring between the disproportionality of discipline referrals, typically to African-American students as opposed to other subgroups–let’s put it out there,” Lanoue said. “It’s a national movement, and one that we’ve monitored.”
Gantt witnessed disproportionate discipline during her time as a part-time counselor before she helped implement PBIS.
“Six years ago, it was clear the groups of kids that were getting in trouble at a higher rate, but my role was not to be involved with administration at that time. I was just delivering direct services to students. I had no concrete idea of what disproportionality was,” Gantt said. “Once I started in that particular role (as behavior specialist), and part of my responsibility became looking at our data in addition to working with students, it became more and more apparent (disproportionality existed).”
A Feb. 27 article in the Athens Banner-Herald entitled, “Shrinking school discipline numbers show school, racial disparities at Cedar Shoals, Clarke Central high schools” reported declines in discipline incidents from the 2012-13 school year to 2014-15 at CCHS and CSHS, as well as a growing disparity in incidents between these schools–over double the number of incidents at Clarke Central in 2014-15, 1360, in comparison to the number at Cedar Shoals, 532.
Furthermore, the article presented examples of racial disparities as well, citing statistics such as 136 of 153 out-of-school suspensions at Cedar Shoals in 2014-15 being black students.
An Open Records request of incident data from the four CCSD middle schools from 2013-15 indicated that 2449–77.2 percent–of all 3173 unduplicated students with discipline incidents recorded during that span were black, although black populations of these schools from 2013-15 only ranged from 47 to 61 percent.
Lanoue maintains, however, that the CCSD as a whole did not receive a disproportionate rating in the most recent release from the federal government.
“We’re not disproportional,” Lanoue said. “We’re always right on the edge, but we’re not disproportional for discipline. We came off (the list) three years ago. I think we had one year where we were on.”
“I know that administrators are–from what I hear and hear them talking about–very concerned image-wise about disproportionality.”
–RAY CLARK, former BSES principal and longtime CCSD educator
Both Lanoue and Gantt noted the discrepancies in previous standards for referrals likely contributed to inflated, disproportionate discipline statistics before the implementation of PBIS.
“If you don’t have the larger organization, in this case the district, prioritizing discipline in the sense of talking about it and providing a guiding framework to house discretion, you see a lot of differences between schools, and then you also see that particular population groups continue to be on the receiving end of unfair or disproportionate consequences,” Gantt said.
Hooker says he chooses to be realistic and transparent about incident data in formulating discipline strategies.
“Here’s the one thing that I’ve said to our faculty and I’ve said to administrators: I’m not going to lie about the data to cover up anyone’s behind,” Hooker said.
Nonetheless, the issue of disproportionality is still a main administrative worry in the district, according to Clark.
“I know that administrators are–from what I hear and hear them talking about–very concerned image-wise about disproportionality,” Clark said. “Unfortunately, it leads to some very terrible things that can happen with assessment and with discipline.”
BUILDING A BETTER DISTRICT
SPEAKING OUT: After an alleged rape on Jan. 7 at Cedar Shoals High School was reported on by the Athens Banner-Herald on Feb. 4, CCSD parents, teachers and students challenged the CCSD Board of Education on the handling of the incident, leading to a panel discussion hosted by the Cedar Shoals PTSO on Feb. 17. The woman speaking criticized the CCSD and its strategies to solve discipline problems. “We need to come out as a community, and that’s what’s missing on this panel,” she said.
Alongside solving problems of discipline and attendance, Lanoue says continued efforts by the CCSD to support local communities and neighborhoods will reduce widespread issues.
“First of all, this isn’t just a school issue–this is a community issue. Our schools really reflect the community in which we live, and so we’ve got to have this broader context that there’s a lot of social stresses that are going on,” Lanoue said. “We have to do it as a community. We have to do things different in school.”
According to Clark, the implementation of parent-controlled choice in 1995 as a means of providing “equity to the county” dismantled school communities, particularly among elementary schools.
Controlled choice required parents entering their children into kindergarten to select their top choices for elementary schools, which were then determined by a lottery system.
“It was a hard time,” Clark said. “Clarke County is yet to recover from (controlled choice). That was one of the biggest things in my 39 years that just blew this county apart.”
Lanoue agrees that choice was problematic.
“I’ve said all along that parent choice was not a good thing for this district,” Lanoue said. “You create a choice on a whole set of assumptions about schools and people and climate, and it created a lot of division.”
So much division, Clark says, that he lost relationships with fellow elementary school principals during the span of controlled choice from 1995-2008.
“It really pitted us as peers and as administrators against each other,” Clark said. “We had to advertise, and it really got cutthroat with some people whom I respected and truly loved. It broke those relationships down because we were competing with each other for the community.”
According to Clark, many disgruntled, affluent families who did not receive their first school choice opted to leave the county altogether.
“When a parent who had their kid at Barnett Shoals Elementary for four years and lived spitting distance across the back recess ground couldn’t be guaranteed their kid was going to be there next year, what do you think the community did? Exodus, major exodus,” Clark said. “It caused all kinds of problems with your population shift.”
“I’ve said all along that parent choice was not a good thing for this district. You create a choice on a whole set of assumptions about schools and people and climate, and it created a lot of division.”
–DR. PHILIP D. LANOUE, CCSD Superintendent
Clark associates the expansion of Oconee County schools with the population shift he witnessed out of Clarke County schools. After the introduction of controlled choice in 1995, North Oconee High School was established in 2004, with feeder schools Malcom Bridge Middle School, Malcom Bridge Elementary, High Shoals Elementary and Rocky Branch Elementary.
To date, 3860 students populate these schools.
“Oconee at that time had Oconee Primary, Oconee Elementary, Oconee Middle and Oconee High School, and boom. That was simply because parents want continuity, they want community, they want accountability, and Clarke County lost it,” Clark said. “If you can build community, you can build discipline.”
The year before Lanoue’s arrival in 2009, the Board of Education adopted a “neighborhood school” model with a new zoning plan.
“I’ve been a strong proponent of neighborhood schools. We’re fortunate that we can do that because we have very mixed neighborhoods,” Lanoue said. “Our whole charter is built on a unique assumption that we need to find the assets and growth areas in our community and fix it to support our children to make healthy choices. In a very idealistic world, it can’t get any better than that.”
Though Clark feels there have some successes of these neighborhood schools, he still sees reasons to be concerned with the current state of the school district and community.
“Trends like school choice, trends like the rape at Cedar Shoals, things like that are hard to overcome, if overcomeable,” Clark said. “You’ll never get rid of it. There’s always going to be the stain.”
While Clark envisions problems down the road for the CCSD, Lanoue advocates for strengthening neighborhoods and vows that future plans will prioritize building community.
“I’ve been vocal to every one of our communities. Listen, if our schools don’t work, fix them. Don’t move. Stop and fix your community,” Lanoue said. “If our schools are centers of our community, and parts of our community do not work, that’s not a good thing and we’re not vibrant. Then, we’ve got spots of dysfunction in our community, and that’s what we’re trying to eliminate.”