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Discipline issues grab spotlight on Halifax County School Board

SoVaNow.com / October 18, 2021
The start of the 2021-22 school year has brought some high-profile breakdowns in discipline: a sprawling fight at the HCHS parking lot, a Tik Tok social media challenge that encouraged students to pilfer items at school, complaints of fights and disruptions at Comet football games, and other incidents.

The perception of rampant abuse obscures the reality, according to school administrators: Other years have seen a higher number of discipline referrals, as borne out by data on student behavior and infractions. “Most of our students are making the right choices daily,” said Dawn Miller, principal of Halifax County Middle School.

But this school year has been vexing at times as students readjust to being back at school after 19 months of the pandemic. Michael Lewis, principal of Halifax County High School, said one of the priorities of the HCHS staff has been to work with students to get them back into the routine of the five-day school week.

“We’re talking about the last time a ninth grader was in full-time school being in the seventh grade. They may have missed some of the maturation process” from that long period away from school, Lewis said. On top of that, “We need two years of learning right now in one year. You start putting that kind of pressure on the backs of students and teachers, there’s a lot of frustration there.”

Lewis, Miller and director of student services Jeff Davis spoke on the topic of student discipline at Thursday’s meeting of the Halifax Count School Board, offering a staunch defense of how building principals and school staff encourage appropriate student conduct, occasionally with the help of local law enforcement.

“We take action when we need to. We have a staff that knows when [to act], a school resource officer [who] knows when to take out charges, how to handle discipline, and we are doing a great job serving the students,” said Lewis.

“I want to give a shout-out for all the great things [students] do every day that often go unnoticed, because of the few things that are noticed,” Lewis said.

Through the first 20 days of the school year, discipline referrals at the high school and middle school were running at roughly similar levels as in 2019-2020, the last time Halifax had a normal school opening. In 2019 at Halifax County Middle School, 60 discipline notices had been issued in the first 20 days; this school year, the comparable number was 56, said Miller.

At the high school, there were 148 discipline referrals in the first 20 days this school year, compared to 144 at the start of school in 2019, said Lewis.

The high-water mark for discipline referrals at HCHS was set in the 2016-17 school year, when there were 213 cases of students being written up for infractions. “It was quite a tough year” with that school opening five years ago, mused Lewis.

“As you can tell by the historical data, we are not what our community has said we are — we are working with our students on a daily basis with some of these challenges to pick them up,” he said.

A pointed moment in the meeting arose when ED-7 trustee Keith McDowell challenged Lewis’s depiction of how effectively discipline is enforced at the high school, an exchange that quickly turned to disruptions at the Comet football homecoming game. After that and other contests, the school imposed a code of conduct for attendees at HCHS football games.

McDowell faulted Lewis and high school staff for failing to anticipate problems that would arise at homecoming: “We should have been prepared; I don’t know why we weren’t,” he said. Speaking of an incident at HCHS that preceded the game, McDowell said he knows of a student who was assaulted at the high school, and the alleged assailant, a fellow student, was allowed to attend homecoming.

He said HCHS should have had “a no-fly zone” in place that would have kept the aggressor student out of the game.

“The school didn’t do hardly anything” about the altercation, said McDowell.

Lewis, who said he would speak privately to McDowell about the fight in question — “I can tell you exactly what we did in private with that student, I don’t think right here is the best place for me to do that” — pushed back when McDowell continued, “We had a lot of fights at that homecoming [game].”

“That’s incorrect,” Lewis replied. “We had zero fights at the homecoming game. We did have some disruptions” — four, which were stopped from turning violent by school staff and law enforcement officers, he said. “There were no fights, sir. No fights.”

“I’d like you to research that,” McDowell said.

“I was there,” Lewis shot back. “There were no fights inside the stadium that night.”

Outside the stadium, Lewis said there was a person arrested for being drunk in public, but there was no violent activity reported. Prior to the game, Lewis said he spoke to school resource officer Edwin Cawthon, an officer with the South Boston Police Department, about the possibility of crowd trouble at homecoming, and in response the SBPD and Halifax County Sheriff’s Office sent a dozen officers to the stadium in case they would be needed that night.

“There no fights inside that stadium; there was no knife found. I’ve heard these rumors, I was there,” said Lewis, speaking to McDowell.

Earlier in his presentation, Lewis made a handful of requests to trustees to enhance security at HCHS — a list that includes a school security officer working under the direct control of the School Board, more computer monitors to keep tabs of security camera feeds, a communications upgrade that will allow teachers to directly contact assistant principals if trouble arises in their classrooms, and exterior cameras to surveil the student parking lot, which Lewis described as a “very wide open area” which is difficult to monitor with existing building cameras.

The parking lot was the scene of a fight among about a half-dozen students in early September that was broken up by school staff and law enforcement officers. An unspecified number of students were charged with juvenile petitions in the wake of the incident.

All told, there have been five fights at the high school so far this year, a number consistent with experience in past years, Lewis noted.

“Absolutely in some of these cases, we have filed charges through our school resource officers. I received three subpoenas just this week,” he said.

“When you do the math, it’s six or seven percent of the students in our high school that are responsible for all [the discipline] referrals,” Lewis continued. He expressed pride in the student body while acknowledging, “I’ll be the first to tell you that they make mistakes.

“But we have great children at Halifax County High School that do great things year after year and year,” Lewis said. “There are thousands of success stories in my time alone, and behind each one of those success stories there is often something they’d like to have removed from their disciplinary record.”

Teachers, administrators and school staff seek to strike a balance between disciplining students and encouraging them to do better — “You can go out there and say you’re going to suspend everybody who does this, or we’re going to put them out,” Lewis said, but the reality is more complicated.

By encouraging students to uphold good behavior, and imposing disciplinary steps that run the gamut from changing a student’s seat in the classroom to long-term suspension or expulsion, HCHS seeks to strike a “critical balance” to encourage students’ academic and personal development, Lewis said.

That job, he added, is made more challenging by longstanding problems with the HCHS facility — in particular, the building’s narrow and isolated stairwells.

“Enclosed stairwells inside a school are very difficult to manage. Very difficult to manage,” said Lewis. He said he has personally overseen the installation of surveillance cameras to monitor trouble in these areas, and that alone won’t solve the problem.

The football stadium, built almost 60 years ago and not modernized since, is another trouble spot for discipline issues, said Lewis. When McDowell asked “Why have we not addressed this problem?” Lewis reminded the ED-7 trustee of the numerous times he has brought the topic to the School Board’s attention.

“This has been an ongoing conversation for years — pretty much my entire tenure [we have] been talking about this,” Lewis said. “These challenges inside our building … they’ve been well-documented, and it is time for our community to take action” to fix the high school, whether through renovation or construction of a new facility.

“I have admitted readily to you tonight, we have challenges. When we have those challenges, I have told this board, we take action,” said Lewis.

ED-5 trustee Freddie Edmunds, a lieutenant with the South Boston Police Department, leapt to the defense of Lewis and others at HCHS and said some school trustees haven’t done “what they’re supposed to do.

“We need a brand-new school in Halifax County … .We’ve been preaching this for a long time. We need to put our personal agenda aside and listen to what people have been saying for years, about the stairwells at the high school, the football stadium.

“He’s been telling you for the last several years, the stairwells, there are some big issues. The football stadium is a big issue, and you keep on drilling and drilling and drilling him and he’s already told you,” Edmunds continued, in apparent response to McDowell.

“You want a lot, but you don’t want to do anything but criticize and point fingers.”

Edmunds further dismissed as unrealistic the idea that disciplinary violations can be tamped out completely. Comparing the high school to the Town of Halifax, Edmunds noted there are more students — about 1,400 — attending the high school than the Town of Halifax has residents, a number he estimated at 1,188.

With more students in the building than the Town of Halifax has spread over nearly four square miles, “something is going to happen” from time to time, said Edmunds. In Halifax town limits, “they have crime every day but we don’t hear about it. As soon as something happens at the high school, we’re pointing fingers.”

Edmunds said he generally tries to avoid mixing his roles as a School Board member and law enforcement officer, but ridiculed the notion that law enforcement alone is the answer to the high school’s problems.

An immediate problem is that neither the South Boston Police Department nor the Sheriff’s Office has adequate resources to cover the vast area of the county, a problem that has worsened as both departments struggle to fill open positions. Edmunds pegged the number at 16, between the two departments. “Do the math,” he said.

With new and experienced law enforcement officers able to earn higher salaries in other areas, Edmunds said the shortage of officers is not likely to let up any time soon. Danville and Lynchburg police, he added, have dozens of openings those departments are struggling to fill as well.

“You cannot call a temporary service and say, ‘send me nine policemen tomorrow who can be working for us.’ That’s not going to happen.

“Law enforcement officers, the men and women who put their lives on the line every day, are professionals and they love what they do and we’ve been underpaying them for so long. And now you need that service and you can’t find them.”

Teachers and principals cannot be expected to act as law enforcement officers, Edmunds continued. “They’re educators. They are a referee to stand between people and break up fights.”

Give “some credit and respect” to “great professionals,” Edmund said: “They can only do the best they can. That’s all.”

Roy Keith Lloyd, ED-2 trustee, said the discipline-related complaints he hears from constituents overwhelmingly pertain to the high school, and while Lloyd said he believes HCHS works well with law enforcement on the most egregious cases, he voiced concern that not enough is done to crack down on minor infractions.

An example that is often brought up by teachers, parents and students, Lloyd said, is vulgar language in the hallways. He called for a policy of “zero tolerance,” with sanctions that start “with minor things.”

Absent such tough enforcement, Lloyd questioned if the data on discipline referrals compiled by administrators is truly accurate. “That number of discipline referrals is probably low,” Lloyd said. “We need to treat some of these matters seriously.”

As for brawls and other reported serious incidents at the high school, “some of these matters go beyond school issues. They’re truly criminal matters,” Lloyd said.

“They’re assaults, they’re vandalisms [and battery]. These are things beyond the school scope.

“I hate to see six percent of the population create an environment of fear or intimidation for the other 94 percent,” Lloyd said.

Miller, principal at HCMS, said her school, too, is affected by the shortage of law enforcement officers to cover Halifax County. While the South Boston Police Department furnishes a full-time school resource officer at the high school, the middle school has a rotating set of sheriff’s deputies who fill the role of resource officer. The school’s full-time SRO recently retired.

“The sheriff’s department has worked cooperatively with us to make sure we have officers on the premises each day,” said Miller, and those officers are a “tremendous” help to the school.

“However, we would like to have one consistent resource officer, who has the opportunity to get to know our students, our staff and the flow of our building throughout the day,” she said.

Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg said he has spoken to Sheriff Fred Clark about regaining a full-time SRO at the middle school, and Clark is sympathetic to the request. The Sheriff’s Office is currently paying its officers overtime to provide coverage at the middle school and spot checks at the county’s elementary schools.

“It’s just getting [a] person to do the job,” said Lineburg. “We’re just shorthanded right now.

“In the past [at HCMS] we had somebody who knew the kids, knew the faculty. We’ve got to get back to that. That’s the aspiration.”

The School Board took one concrete action related to discipline — on a motion by Lloyd, trustees voted 6-0 to pay off-duty police to monitor Comet football games, taking over that role from local police departments. However, instead of stationing deputies and town officers behind the end zone, HCPS will have them in the stands, positioned at the walkways up to bleacher sections.

“If that requires that we pay the officers, so be it,” said Lloyd.

Edmunds, ED-5 trustee, abstained from the vote.

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Comments

how bout the 3 plus fights at the homecoming game? sobopd denies this but kids knew where every fight was. students swear they saw a gun drop out of the pants at the fight near the snackbar...
have the games on saturday so the thugs think twice about causing problems

Comments

I agree with Lloyd that the 12 LE at the game were all in the north end zone near the snack bar yucking it up. They should have been dispersed through the crowd. If it takes paying them, then pay them station them as a reasonable person would throughout the stadium. Up on the bleachers makes a great spot to keep an eye on the crowd.
I was there at homecoming and when the fight broke out all the LE were all hanging out. BTW sheriff office charged someone that night. why is that a mystery to Lewis??
and kick the trouble makers out of school. It's not a babysitting school. and civil/criminal charge the parents for any trouble their kid causes.

Comments

So referrals are handled by admin, who also report them. I know for a fact they dismiss a lot of referrals in order to keep them off of the state report. The building does present it's challenges to the staff and does factor into the discipline issues, but so does the fact that admin is soft on it's actions and students get away with everything. A few years ago there was even a fight club in the school that went on for a long time before admin knew about it. How does a group get together for fights within the building and admin know nothing about it? Make it a policy, you fight in school or at an event, you leave in cuffs and with charges.


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