Discipline problems are on the rise in Alexandria, but School Board members are divided about what to do about it. While some want to create a new standing committee to address the issue, others voted to shift responsibility to the board's Curriculum Committee.
According to data collected by Alexandria City Public Schools last year, long-term suspensions rose from 12 in 2002 to 38 in 2003 to 56 in 2004. Short-term suspensions increased as well, with 779 in 2002, 1,054 in 2003 and 1,320 in 2004. At T.C. Williams High School, reports of fights are on the rise, with 50 in 2002, 55 in 2003 and 67 in 2004. But statistics tell only part of the story.
"Discipline problems are definitely on the rise, and that's a nationwide trend," said Francis Chase, president of the Education Association of Alexandria. "Teachers are concerned about the rise in violence, but people have different ideas about how to address it."
ON THE SCHOOL BOARD, conflicting opinions have emerged about how to address discipline problems. One board member's plan, which would have created a new standing committee to address problems, was voted down at the first board meeting of the new school year.
School Board member Gwendolyn Lewis advocated creating a new standing committee to address discipline issues.
Her proposal listed several goals for the new standing committee: identifying programs and practices that "foster recognition for positive student behavior," identifying training programs to "foster diverse acceptance and multicultural understanding" and developing goals "to assure continuous progress in the elimination of disparate treatment of minorities." At Thursday's meeting, she voted to shift oversight of discipline issues to the board's Curriculum Committee.
"I am adamant about the work getting done, and I don't care who does it," Lewis said. "It's not so important to add a new committee, but it is important that the work gets done."
TO EMPHASIZE HER POINT, Lewis brought a stack of information collected by an ad hoc committee she chaired last year. The folders and documents about discipline problems was more than five inches thick, and the visual aid illustrated what the statistics could not.
"I think this fits within the strike zone of the Curriculum Committee," said School Board member Arthur Schmalz, who introduced the motion to shift responsibility. Lewis agreed, but two other board members did not.
"I appreciate the work that went into the ad hoc Discipline Committee," said School Board member Charles Wilson, who voted against the motion. "There's a lot of work that needs to be done, and it should continue."
School Board member Kenneth Foran agreed with Wilson, voting against broadening the scope of the Curriculum Committee. Foran and Wilson both made statements opposing the shift of responsibility, advocating a new strategy for addressing discipline problems in the city. Both members argued that a standing discipline committee was the way to address the growing problem of discipline.
"I think it's important that we do our best to see that injustice is not committed," Foran said. "It's also important to create the perception that we are doing something about this problem."
Three public speakers also advocated new initiatives to address discipline complaints.
"I think a standing Discipline Committee is needed to address these problems," said Tyree Anderson, a minister at Shiloh Baptist Church. "Things are getting worse, whether the School Board members want to admit it or not."
A MAJORITY of School Board members decided not to create a new standing committee on discipline. In addition, they voted to move the work of the existing ad hoc Discipline Committee — examining statistical data about discipline problems and revising the student guidelines — to the Curriculum Committee. The School Board also asked Superintendent Rebecca Perry to prepare a report analyzing discipline statistics in Alexandria schools. The report, which should be completed in the next few months, will examine data for socioeconomic groups, racial categories and emotionally disturbed programs.
Currently, the Curriculum Committee is composed of three board members: Sally Ann Baynard, Kenneth Foran and Melissa Luby. In addition to examining discipline issues, the committee reviews curriculum changes and staff development. For board member Mark Wilkoff, a former chairman of the board, the debate about adding a new committee was an opportunity to comment on procedure and philosophy.
"For me, it's a process issue," Wilkoff said. "If I had my way, I'd dismantle all the standing committees and do everything at the board level."
Wilkoff did not propose a motion to dismantle the School Board's standing committees, but he did vote against creating a new standing committee. He also voted with the majority to transfer the work of the ad hoc Discipline Committee chaired by Lewis to the Curriculum Committee.
After the vote, Luby reiterated comments she made at last month's retreat that the goals Lewis set forth for the new Discipline Committee were already being addressed. Luby said that the school system has existing measures to promote prevention and intervention: character education, elementary school programs to address social and emotional learning, peer mediation programs, small-group counseling, individual behavior plans and interim education programs.
"Fairness and discipline are a concern for all of us," Luby said. "But until we get the full report from the superintendent, we won't know if we'll need additional resources or changes in policy. There's always room for improvement, and we will continue to provide the support our students need."