Georgia school fights raise concerns about classroom safety

The tipping point for Jack Brinson came during the 2015-16 school year when he said one of his elementary school students told him another student was plotting to kill him.

Before that, Brinson said there were other incidents, like the time a student brought a gun to school or the two students who tried to hit him.

“It got to the point I was afraid for my safety,” said Brinson, who resigned from his job last year at West Clayton Elementary School and is now teaching at Park Lane Elementary in Fulton County.

For Brinson, and many students and teachers, Georgia’s public schools seem to be becoming more violent places.

Instead of trying to pull fighting students apart, classmates pull out their cellphones to make a video. Even teachers are discouraged from, or fearful of, intervening, and teachers say unruly students are more brazen as some disciplinary steps such as suspensions are taken less frequently.

The number of fights reported by schools went from 46,399 during the 2011-12 school year to 53,462 during the 2015-16 school year, a 15 percent increase, according to state data. Reports of batteries have increased about fivefold during the same time span, the data show.

One in 10 Georgia public high school students (the national average is 8 percent) said they’d been in a fight, according to the most recent federal data available. Georgia ranked eighth nationally in that category, according to the 2013 federal data.

State education officials note more students are attending public schools, about 75,000 more between the 2012 and 2016 school years, so the percentage of students getting in fights is about the same as it was five years ago. They also say schools are more vigilant about reporting violent acts on school grounds.

Concerns some have about school safety were amplified by several disturbing videos of physical altercations in metro Atlanta schools during the last month of school. One video inside Gwinnett County’s Discovery High School showed a student who lost consciousness after being body slammed by a classmate as more than a dozen classmates cheered on the fracas. Less than a week later in the same school, video showed a student repeatedly punching and kicking a classmate.

The violence isn’t just among students. Cellphone video caught a DeKalb County teacher and a paraprofessional trading blows in front of a class of middle school students. The school district said it would fire both.

Many local school districts have added more officers in recent years to protect students and teachers. Some discourage teachers from trying to break up fights.

“I would advise a teacher not to intervene,” said Mike McGonigle, legal director for the Georgia Association of Educators. “There’s just too much liability.”

Some local educator groups and teachers believe students are less fearful of the consequences for violent behavior, thus the increase in reported fights. The Professional Association of Georgia Educators conducts an annual survey of its 92,000 members and one frequent response, spokesman Craig Harper said, is “disruptive students get to stay in the classroom.”

Georgia Association of Educators president Sid Chapman echoed such thoughts.

The students “feel like there’s no consequence to anything they do,” he said.

Many also blame a culture of violent video games, bellicose politicians and the prevalence of school fight videos for what we see.

Some videos have been viewed more than 1 million times online. In one video posted on LiveLeak of a fight purportedly between a teacher assistant and a student in Virginia, three students could be seen recording the altercation. One student fell while recording it, but kept his phone trained on the scuffle.

After the second video at Discovery High became news, the principal, Gene Taylor, wrote a letter to parents and students warning that students who encourage or cheer on fighting or videotape fights will face disciplinary action.

Georgia PTA president Tyler Barr said many of the disputes start between students on the school bus or online. He believes schools should have classes, starting in the fifth grade, on social media education that discourage students from using it to promote disputes or to post fight videos.

“Social media kind of eggs it on,” said Barr, who lives in Douglas County and has a son who just finished the seventh grade. “The person who’s shooting the video, why don’t you break (up the fight)?”

State data show disciplinary actions against students have declined in many areas in recent years. Out-of-school suspensions have decreased by 31 percent during the past decade, state officials say. In recent years, many school districts have suspended or expelled fewer students, believing such discipline does little to improve the students’ behavior and they fall farther behind academically. Some groups have also pressured schools to reduce such punishment, pointing to data that shows black and Latino students are disproportionately disciplined.

Instead, many school administrators and state education officials have pushed schools to implement programs such as Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports that celebrates or gives students small rewards for good behavior. The number of teams trained in PBIS has nearly quadrupled in the past five years. State education officials believe it’s working. They say schools with the program score far better on the annual rating system that measures school safety and other factors.

Teachers say PBIS has helped, but more is needed. More school counselors would help, they say. Georgia recommends 450 students per counselor but at some schools that ratio is much higher.

Brinson, 55, a Boy Scout leader, said more after-school programs are needed to guide children, particularly those whose parents work long hours.

Brinson still loves to teach and has found a measure of peace in his new school.

“It’s better. I don’t fear for my life,” he said. “I don’t have to look around when I go to my car.”

Here’s a breakdown of how many fights have been reported in Georgia’s public schools the last five school years:

2015-16  53,462

2014-15  50,349

2013-14  48,964

2012-13  50,551

2011-12  46,399

Source: Georgia Department of Education

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