Discussion of ongoing discipline concerns continued to dominate the Hamilton County Board of Education's meeting Thursday night along with school security needs, with Superintendent Bryan Johnson acknowledging that there is work to be done in both areas.
Student discipline concerns
The contentious, sometimes emotional debate between school board members from Monday night's special discipline committee meeting carried over into discussion of revised board policies Thursday.
Johnson acknowledge that there is still work to be done regarding the rollout of the new Code of Acceptable Behavior and Discipline, which the board only adopted in July.
School board member Tucker McClendon, of District 8, shared insights from a meeting of the Superintendent's Student Advisory Council with the board, noting that students notice that individual schools' rules still differ from district guidelines.
"Students were feeling like the schools have a handbook, we have [the] Code of Acceptable Behavior, and a lot of times what the school has is stricter than what we have, so it's conflicting," he said.
Student board member Jeremiah Taylor echoed McClendon, sharing that many of his peers have been frustrated with ever-changing expectations.
"Students were saying that less rules can result in better environments or even being rewarded for positive behavior," Taylor said. "Students feel like with more rules, they are unattainable rules."
The board agreed that more work needs to be done to ensure that individual school handbooks and rules that principals put in place are consistent with guidelines set by the district and the board.
Alternative school options
District 9 board member Steve Highlander pressed his colleagues, stating that regardless of consistent rules, he still believes that "95% of [Hamilton County] students, even in our challenging schools, really want to do well. ... But it is incumbent on our teachers and our administrators that that 5% doesn't disrupt."
Currently, students who are suspended or expelled from their home school only have one option — to attend the Washington Alternative Center on Hancock Road.
But Highlander said the district needed more options. The district is exploring a second location, Johnson told the board Thursday night — which was news to many of them — and said it hopes to have a second site by the spring semester.
"We are looking at a second, third, fourth location," Johnson said. "We know that bus line is an issue and, frankly, it is our goal to stand up a second environment by spring semester. But space and place will be a discussion."
Board member Joe Smith, of District 3, noted that he would like to see an alternative school location that offers a variety of services that meet all of a student's needs, some of which could be the cause of their disruptive or troublesome behavior.
"What if we had an alternative school ... and it was a one-stop shopping center. We got social workers coming to us, we got pediatricians coming to us, we got behavior specialists coming to us ... to provide a lot of those needs that these angry, acting out students need," Smith said. "I don't think it's the government's role to pay for all that stuff, but what are we going to do about it?"
Student safety and security
With at least nine school resource officer vacancies in district schools, Johnson also told board members that the district could do better in terms of student security.
After much debate, the board approved a new student security officer position to be a central point of contact for partnering law enforcement agencies, to manage individual schools' safety plans and handle the administrative side of safety.
Board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1, voted against the position, citing concerns with how it was funded. The district will fund the $55,000-$70,000 salary out of its unused $500,000 allocation for school resource officers.
It currently is not paying for any resource officers because the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office has not completely staffed the number it typically funds, but up to $20,000 will also come out of that funding for a $2,000 signing bonus for new school resource officers, which the board also approved Thursday night.
McClendon also renewed discussion about the possibility of the district hiring off-duty officers to patrol schools that currently don't have a resource officer, despite District 6 board member Jenny Hill's concerns about the "extremely high cost" of paying $40 an hour for a sheriff's deputy or Chattanooga Police Department officer, compared to a resource officer's typical salary.
"When you look at the climate of society today and tragedies that have happened in schools, safety has to be paramount to us, and if we are saying $40 is too much, then we don't have our priorities in the right place," McClendon told the Times Free Press. "I for one am not going to put a price on protecting our students and making sure they are safe every day they come into our buildings."
Contact Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.