A rising number of fights in Alachua County Public Schools, including two fights in Gainesville high schools that led to arrests this month, have brought renewed attention to the issue of student discipline.
The school district is preparing to roll out additional efforts to address the problem, including a resource guide on discipline for teachers and coaching for parents. But a newly elected School Board member is calling for more to be done, including creating a new school for students with discipline issues.
Currently, district students in grades six through 12 with significant behavioral issues attend the A. Quinn Jones Center in Gainesville. Diyonne McGraw, who was elected in August, said a new “transitional school” is needed for students before behavioral issues rise to that level.
“There are things that we can do to turn the behavior around,” McGraw said at a Sept. 22 meeting of Gainesville For All, a nonprofit group that aims to address racial and socioeconomic disparities in the community.
Her comments came as fights are increasing in local schools. In recent weeks, two brawls broke out at Buchholz and Eastside high schools. Each led to arrests.
There have been 174 fights recorded during the first seven weeks of the school year, up from 152 during the same period in 2021, according to the school district. There were 131 fights during the same period in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down schools for much of the rest of the year.
A fight on Sept. 13 at Eastside High led to students being pepper sprayed and five students being arrested on misdemeanor charges. Deputies used pepper spray to break up the brawl due to its large size, with 21 students and staff members being treated afterward for the exposure, said Capt. Kaley Behl, spokesperson for the Alachua County Sheriff's Office.
Video of a Sept. 16 fight at Buchholz High involving two 14-year-old girls, one of whom brandished a stun gun, was circulated on social media. The girls were both charged with felonies, including battery on a school employee who was hit while trying to break up the fight.
District spokesperson Jackie Johnson said new efforts to address discipline include a resource guide being developed for teachers. The guide focuses on the most effective ways to address behavioral problems, she said, based on research and input from teachers.
The district is also beefing up in-school suspensions to ensure students are not just doing “busy work” that causes them to fall behind and adds to behavioral issues, she said.
Fixing the problem outside of class
There are also efforts to address problems outside school that contribute to the rise in discipline problems.
On Sept. 6, the School Board approved a $112,000 contract with the Cook Center for Human Connection to provide coaching for parents on successful skills and other family support programs for the district. Johnson said these programs come in addition to regular webinars for families, as well as family empowerment summits, one of which was held in August and another of which is scheduled for next month.
The pandemic has exacerbated discipline issues, she added, due to students spending extended time outside school settings without structure and experiencing trauma as a result of family illnesses, deaths and job losses.
“It’s certainly had an impact,” Johnson said.
Discipline has been cited by the Alachua County Education Association as contributing to teacher turnover and was a major issue in August’s School Board election.
McGraw, who beat current board member Mildred Russell in August and starts her term after the November election, said a new school for students experiencing discipline issues would help address the problem.
Students with behavioral issues had attended the Horizon Center, an alternative school that specialized in dropout prevention, before the facility was closed in 2015. These students were subsequently sent to the A. Quinn Jones Center as well as the Sidney Lanier Center, which has a small program for students in grades one to five with significant behavioral issues in addition to programs for children with disabilities.
McGraw said a new transitional school would be geared to addressing the needs of students and their families, with social workers, parenting classes and wraparound services. She said she would call it the "School of Success," saying that providing those services along with reinforcement for positive behavior would help students succeed.
“You’re going to reward them if they’re doing well. But there are consequences — it’s never a punishment — but there are consequences for their behaviors," McGraw said.
She said that fights are “a symptom of a bigger problem.”
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This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: More fights in Alachua County Public Schools force disciplinary action