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School discipline flare-ups and their consequences / November 17, 2021
By Paul Nichols
Division Superintendent, Mecklenburg County Public Schools

Much attention has been given to disciplinary issues at each of our secondary schools during the past several weeks. I have been engaged with principals, counselors and teachers, School Resource Officers (SROs) and other deputies, the Sheriff, and several parents about the various concerns. Several of the disciplinary processes are still under investigation. It takes time to work through each of the issues to get to the root cause to determine what problems are independent or connected.

What’s happened recently?

There have been many rumors about disciplinary issues at our middle and high schools lately. I’d like to share the facts with you.

There was a fight at Bluestone High School two weeks ago among four boys right at the end of the school day. Several sheriff deputies responded to the SRO’s call for backup. Our investigation with the police shows that this fight was gang-related and seven students that were directly and indirectly involved have been charged and removed from school. Earlier disciplinary issues have been proven to be related to this same cause. Removal of these students has relieved the tension at Bluestone.

There have been fights at Park View High School as well. Each of them have been investigated by the SRO and the Sheriff’s Office. There is no evidence that the cause of the fights are related to each other. We acknowledge that there are gang wannabe’s on the eastern end of the county as well, but the fights we have seen at Park View seem to be of the kind that high schools have always had, just with a bit more underlying emotion due to more tension among the students that I will address.

Additionally, on Thursday afternoon late there were two instances of students ingesting THC that required medical attention. Ambulances had to be called in. This requires a Code Yellow (health related) school lockdown. Investigation of the two suggests that the two were not connected to each other at all, they just happened at almost the same time. The persons involved were unrelated and the devices used to ingest the drug were totally different.

Bluestone Middle and Park View Middle schools are both dealing with an increase in social media bullying. The administration and staff at both schools is working to curb these activities.

The reality is that we need to operate with care and respect for others. We function best when students and staff are all a family working together.

Why is this happening now?

The basic reason is that tension and anxieties are heightened. These tensions and anxieties are not unique to the school environment; they come to school from home and our overall society. There is a greater number of issues creating tensions than ever before. COVID has created significant frustration throughout our society. There is dramatic tension between liberal and conservative views in our national and state politics that plays out 24 hours a day on every form of media. Everything that is or isn’t happening in our homes is coming to school with the students. The issues that we are dealing with most prominently at this time include:

» Increased academic remediation to make up for last year’s lost work

» Racial tension.

» LGBQT inclusion and non-discrimination

» COVID health issues and impact on families

» COVID vaccination/mask mandates

» Local gang influence

How did we get from tension to fear?

These tensions are exacerbated by three particular possessions that every student has direct access to: cell phone technology, social media, and drugs. We have procedures in place for our administration and teachers that should minimize the use of these, but the prevalence of each of them and the multiple ways that students are able to hide their use make it practically impossible for our staff or sheriff’s deputies to detect and stop determined use.

Of particular concern right now is the issue of legalized marijuana. School administrators and SROs are aware that students have access to it in school. However, the most common ingestion of it now is through vaping and food. The vaping mechanisms are so small they are practically undetectable. THC can be purchased locally and baked into cookies, brownies, etc., and even purchased directly at local stores in food products.

Social media exacerbates bullying issues and promulgates drama. Students know how to use technology to create illusions of reality that will prompt the response that they desire from other students, and even from parents. This is occasionally at a level that can be perceived as a direct threat, and therefore requires disciplinary action.

More frequently it creates drama that causes classroom interruptions without crossing the direct threat line. The reality is that social media exists outside the boundary of the school itself. It goes on 24 hours a day, amplifying the impact on those being targeted, and is usually undetected by school staff because students will not report it. New technologies are continually created to hide evidence. There is little that the school administrators can do without evidence.

Almost every child has a cell phone. Let me remind you that the cell phones today are powerful computers with more communication technology than most parents can even understand. Students communicate with each other in school, with others outside of school, and with parents as convenient. Parents insist that their children have their cell phones immediately available. Much of what is communicated carries the construed reality of the person sending the message. This past week, for example, the message that went out was that there was danger in the schools, please come take me home. Some messages stated that there were guns and weapons. Others said that they heard gun shots. None of this was happening.

Yes, we had some fights, but we have always had fights in school. There was use of drugs, but we have always had this. The difference is that more drugs are legally used in our society, within our homes, and it’s making its way into our schools.

Last week’s problem

Tensions at Park View High School appeared particularly high last week. The tensions between members of the Gay/Straight Alliance Club members, and other students in the school who are equally proud of their traditional heritage have escalated. Many other students are frustrated by being pressured by the two extremes to “join one side or the other.”

Let me remind everyone that the mantra of our current society is “free speech” and the right to be “who I am.” Schools are not allowed to discriminate against the lifestyle choices of individuals. Our primary responsibility is to educate students to be prepared for good jobs and careers so that they can provide for themselves and be productive members of society. We work hard to provide a safe and supportive environment for each child to learn. Student discipline is expected. The rules of student behavior are clearly given, and we work hard to be sure that they are followed without discrimination.

Tensions at Park View High School among students and concerns of parents were exacerbated by the medical lock-downs on Thursday afternoon. Medical issues are very private and I will not go into details except that to say that the information about them that circulated on social media was significantly and inappropriately overblown at the least, and false in most cases.

Teachers overheard students stating that they would be staging a walk-out Friday. Was this idea of a walk out due to extra anxieties, or was it an opportunity to get out of school for a day with the excuse of concerns for safety? No doubt the anxieties are real for some, but it was an opportunity for many others to take advantage of the hyperbole and drama to get out of school for a day.

This past Friday, following the issues on Thursday, the Sheriff’s Office determined that they would support the school with extra police presence to help relieve tensions and deter any inappropriate actions. Mrs. Dominique Sturdifen, Park View’s principal, sent out notices to all parents to notify them about Thursday’s issues. She met with teachers and staff early Friday morning to share new procedures she wanted implemented to re-establish stability, and then met with all the students, class by class, to reinforce expectations of appropriate behavior and civility as well as to remind students to watch out and care for each other as a family.

Soon after the last meeting with the students, a rumor went out that a threat of gun violence had been posted on social media. Students texted their parents that they were nervous and many parents checked the students out of school for the rest of the day. The only social media expression that has been identified is one from a student stating, “We’ve been told we cannot wear our confederate flag, but they allow the gay students to wear their rainbow flags. This stops today.” This is an untrue statement. Mrs. Sturdifen has informed students that all flags are not apparel, and cannot be worn at school. Let me be clear, that social media post may not meet the definition of a direct threat, but given the nature of the tension and the fact that it had such a dramatic impact on the school day, we will investigate and treat this as one.

What is MCPS doing about it?

All of our administrators and staff are working hard to dismantle the social tensions while maintaining the focus on instruction. Our policies and procedures for keeping students safe are appropriate. There are new issues to deal with and we have been able to provide our school counselors with more time to do work directly with students. We have also identified additional counseling resources within the community to help student anxieties. Our Student Resource Officers are doing an outstanding job and we have evidence that the Sheriff’s Office is readily and continually available with additional support as needed.

Additionally, I have asked Sheriff Hawkins to conduct more drug searches. He has informed me that his officers will work with us to treat verbal threats with harsher discipline. Students choosing to fight, no matter the cause, will face the possibility of criminal charges.

Many freedoms that the students have enjoyed for bathroom breaks and mask wearing breaks will now have to be curtailed. There will be more police presence. Stronger disciplinary actions will be given for rules infractions that don’t require SRO interaction. These disciplinary issues must be contained.

Mecklenburg County is better than this. We have suffered significant trials over the past year with the COVID pandemic. Many students have become used to having fewer academic responsibilities, or more freedom to engage only persons who think and feel the way that they think and to do whatever they want while at home. However, this attitude is very costly as they prepare for the responsibilities of life. Again, our primary job at MCPS is to prepare our students for success with jobs and careers in a safe environment. We will continue to focus on this priority.

It has been suggested that the school should put more messages out about issues that are taking place in our schools. We are committed to being clear and transparent with our parents, students, and staff on all of these issues. However, there are very stringent guidelines from both the state and federal government about personal privacy related to health and discipline issues that we must respect and follow. Disciplinary issues have to be validated rather than assumed so that they can be appropriately dealt with. We are committed to notifying everyone whenever there is any significant threat.

Opportunities ahead

Mecklenburg, we have so much going for us. We have jobs available locally for those that prepare for them. We are in the midst of a new school building project that is the envy of most rural school areas. Our students are earning real industry credentials opening doors for wonderful careers without significant student debt. This new building is not being built for the students only, it will provide significant opportunity for the community, once divided into east and west, to come together.

The mascot of our new school is the Phoenix, the symbol of strength with resurrection power. With resurrection promise we can move beyond COVID, rise above the various social tensions, and move forward. Like all families, we have differences, but we can still love and care for each other. Let us keep our attention on the goal of educating our students to take advantage of these opportunities and lay these distractions behind us!

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