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Staff file photo / Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson speaks during a meeting of the Rotary Club of Chattanooga on June 20, 2019.

Editor's note: This is the second story in a two-part series taking a look at school discipline.

Despite Hamilton County Schools' board members' recent concerns about student behavior, district officials — including Superintendent Bryan Johnson — say behavior and discipline are on par with previous years.

In-school suspensions are up for the months of August and September this school year, though out-of-school suspensions are down, or about 129 suspensions fewer than August and September in 2018.

Johnson and district officials responded to concerns about the district's new Code of Acceptable Behavior and its rollout in schools this fall.

"The code of behavior is not a solution," Johnson told the Times Free Press during a recent meeting with several members of the administration. He did acknowledge that the district understood students were struggling and need more supports, something Johnson said was a focus of his $443 million budget request for fiscal year 2020 that was shot down by the Hamilton County Commission, and the district had tried to find a number of solutions.

The district has rolled out a more consistent, clearer code of behavior, added alternative learning environments like in-school suspensions options, tried to increase the number of counselors per students, and provided more behavior management training to teachers, Johnson said.

The code itself is an outward-facing document, said Nakia Towns Edwards, the district's chief of staff.

"The code of acceptable behavior is more of a document that faces parents and students and — is really a guide for administrators in terms of consequences for certain behaviors," she said.

With the enforcement of the new code, district officials said the number of in-school and out-of-school suspensions trended up in August, but has flatlined in September. There were 688 in-school suspensions issued in August and September this year and 937 out-of-school suspensions.

Last year, only 597 in-school suspensions were counted during the first two months of school, with 1,066 out-of-school suspensions issued.

Students can be suspended for a variety of behaviors depending on the severity of the offense, including skipping class, bullying, fighting and more.

Disciplinary actions that result in nine days of out-of-school suspension or less are handled solely at the school level, unless a student or their family appeals the action, district officials said.

Though the numbers of disciplinary actions seem to be on track, school board members have said they are hearing from teachers who don't feel like students are being punished for misbehavior or disrespect.

"I know of a teacher who was hit in the face — and these kids amazingly end up back in the classroom. If this code of discipline is allowing that to happen, we need to trash it and start all over again," said school board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1. "It was meant to give the principals autonomy. It seems like when teachers ask for help, they don't get it."

Teachers have even started posting to social media or written letters to local media outlets to share their feelings of being unsupported by administrators or their concerns over how they are treated by students.

Brad Jackson, the district's campus support specialist, did acknowledge that how administrators communicate expectations for behavior and discipline is a "school-level issue."

"There's some things in [the code] that try to give a principal or an administrator at one school or an administrator at another school some leeway on. In the code, if there is a situation that might not fit into the realm of the legend and the consequences, the principals were told they could reach out to their executive directors and come up with a plan for that," Jackson said. "Communication between administrators at the school level and their teachers is a school-level issue."

The new code, which provides multiple consequences for a variety of behaviors or rule breaking, is meant to be used by teachers to understand what an infraction might be and the possible outcomes or consequences of that infraction, Towns Edwards said.

Typically, teachers write up students who misbehave and give them a discipline referral that is handled by a school administrator such as a principal, assistant principal or dean.

"I believe that teachers would use the code to understand the definition of what an infraction is — so the code defines what would rise to the next level of infraction," she said. "The consequences are doled out by the principals."

Johnson also acknowledged some of the "hiccups" the district has experienced since the new code went into effective, and since the school year started overall.

One of those hiccups included the lack of an in-school suspension monitor at The Howard School. All middle and high schools have an in-school suspension option for infractions that don't rise to the point that a student should be sent out of school, but human resource paperwork and training had held up the availability of Howard's monitor, Johnson said.

District administration also had heard concerns from elementary school staff after they received the same new discipline referral forms that were made for secondary schools. The possible student behaviors being cited on the form as a reason for the referral ranged from cutting class and major disruptions to alcohol or drug sales, sexual battery and extortion.

"This was the first time this had ever been done across the district — and we knew it was a growing document, that it could change and there were going to be some hiccups, if you want to call it that," Jackson said of the code.

District officials said discipline is being tackled with a multi-tiered approach that educators already use for teaching and learning. Whole school approaches such as positive behavior intervention support systems have been launched in some schools, and other supports such as specialty "bridge" classrooms that provide disruptive students with a low student-to-teacher ratio environment at the elementary level are also in the process of being launched.

Neelie Parker, executive director of the North River Learning Community, said she has heard positive feedback from the majority of administrators this year.

"There is a lot to discipline that is, number one, very personal, but number two, very individualized and student centric," Parker said. "I think we've come a long way — As educators we have to adapt and give strategies, but we are ever-growing in that because the needs of students are always changing."

Some school board members remain concerned, though.

The board will meet with Johnson and his team during a special discipline committee meeting when class resumes after fall break on Oct. 14. That meeting will be at 4:30 p.m. in the board room of 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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