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Staff file photo by C.B. Schmelter / The Hamilton County School Board meets during a Hamilton County Schools budget work session on March 14.

Students cursing out teachers? Classroom behavior out of control? Teachers not feeling supported?

Amid the implementation of the Student Code of Acceptable Behavior and Discipline, some Hamilton County school board members are worried that discipline is not better but worse in schools across the county this year.

Some don't know if the problem is the new code of conduct and discipline procedures — which school district officials say are more robust and clear than anything the district has ever had — or if student behavior is just worse than usual.

"I know of a teacher who was hit in the face — and these kids amazingly end up back in the classroom," said school board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1. "If this code of discipline is allowing that to happen, we need to trash it and start all over again."

Thurman, who serves as the nine-member school board's point person for discipline, reached out to district teachers seeking feedback on both the code itself and what's happening inside their schools.

"I am being made aware that the recent passage of our new [code] may be making matters worse instead of better," she said. "As chairman of the Discipline Committee, I asked the administration to tighten up discipline, especially violence, disrespect and language used against teachers. The new code was compiled to ensure that all students were being held to the same standard in each school."

(Hamilton County Schools updating student code of conduct, role of discipline) 

Thurman isn't the only school board member with concerns about the code, especially regarding discipline inside certain schools. The lack of an in-school suspension monitor and plan for implementing the program at The Howard School has been a concern for one board member, along with teacher concerns over the district's new discipline referral forms, which district officials said they have re-evaluated and are addressing.

But other board members do not share Thurman's concerns.

Change doesn't happen overnight and the code itself doesn't affect actual student behavior, board members said.

"It's just going to take a while," said school board member Joe Smith, of District 3. "When we approved that new code of conduct, it's probably the most comprehensive document we've ever had."

Smith said his biggest concern is that the code is implemented and that consequences are doled out equally across the district.

Thurman said the code was meant to give principals some flexibility within their schools, but she's heard from teachers who don't feel supported and say student discipline issues aren't addressed at all.

"It was meant to give the principals autonomy," Thurman said. "It seems like when teachers ask for help, they don't get it."

Smith and other district officials also agree that Hamilton County students need more support — support that could have been provided by additional school counselors, behavioral interventionists and other support staff in district schools.

Student supports were a large focus of the district's initial $443 million budget request for the 2020 fiscal year — a request that was shot down by the Hamilton County Commission because it would have included a 34-cent property tax increase.

"It's disappointing that we haven't been able to provide the additional behavior interventionists and supports that [Superintendent Bryan] Johnson included in his budget request," Smith said.

The new code itself was a focus of former Chief Operating Officer Ken Bradshaw during Johnson's second year with the district. Hamilton County Schools — and seven schools specifically — had been flagged by the Tennessee Department of Education for disproportionately disciplining students with disabilities, primarily students of color.

The code was approved by the board this summer after a committee of principals, district leaders and Thurman met for months and studied robust codes from other school districts across the state and country.

Nevertheless, board members and some district officials remain divided on what is driving disciplinary problems in county schools.

Thurman called for a special session of the discipline committee to meet after fall break. The board will meet for that session at 4:30 p.m. Oct. 14 at the Hamilton County Department of Education.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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