GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. — Dozens of teachers in Gwinnett County Public Schools are calling out of the classroom this week in an attempt to make a statement over repeated acts of violence in school. It comes after one teacher was assaulted and others have been hurt trying to break up fights in the last week.
Teachers, students and parents took their concerns to Gwinnett County administrators during a town hall Wednesday evening as they looked for answers. They addressed school district superintendent Dr. Calvin J. Watts and Gwinnett County School Board member Dr. Mary Kay Murphy at Paul Duke STEM High School in Norcross.
"The superintendent has led this district into the catastrophe we’re in now," former administrator Dr. Frances Davis said. "It’s not just the discipline. We have teachers leaving at alarming rates. We have principals retiring before time. We’re losing teachers every single day because they’re afraid to be in the classroom, to be in the schools, because they don’t have the local authority to do what they need to do.”
Davis criticized the restorative practice policy passed by the school board. The policy aims to give students more leeway when they violate school code. But critics believe the policy is confusing and has only led to more violence.
One teacher, who wanted to remain anonymous, said she and dozens of others planned to walk out of the classroom as a demonstration to try and get administrators to change the policy.
“We’re being blocked left and right by policies we had nothing to do with creating," the teacher said. "I know of two teachers personally who have given up their career by walking away, just in this semester. That’s more in the plus 20 years I’ve taught. They just can’t take it anymore.”
In a statement, the school district told 11Alive there were more than 1,000 teachers out Wednesday, which it called normal:
"We did not have any disruptions to teaching and learning in GCPS today. On any given school day, 900-1,100 teachers of about 12,500 (approximately 8%) are out for various excused absences. Today we had just over 1,000 teachers out, well within our typical range, and nothing of note to report. Today we filled 79% of those absences with substitute teachers; others were able to combine classes or used other staff to support learning. Again, this was well within our average range, and our schools were able to operate as scheduled. We know that our teachers in GCPS take the code of ethics seriously, and they deeply care for the students they serve and the staff they serve beside."
11Alive found that the number of fights in Gwinnett County schools were up 32% from last year, and there was a 25% increase in weapons found in schools, according to the district.
Eddie Madden, a senior at Paul Duke STEM High School, said while Watts had good intentions, the community-oriented restorative practice policy was not rolled out properly.
"That rollout left people uninformed, in the dark and it created a variable implementation across the schools," Madden told 11Alive. “I have limited confidence in Dr. Watts to roll this out, mostly because in the past six months, he’s been all talk and no action.”
Watts admitted the district's 12,000 teachers had not received the 30 hours of training the new policy requires. He said the district was course-correcting, sticking by the policy he said would reaffirm safety of students and teachers as the district's main priority.
“We have adults who may not necessarily understand what exactly that skillset of restorative practice is if they’ve not been trained the way that they need to," Watts said. "So we are course-correcting in that area. We’re going to work to take some midsize or smaller size chunks in terms of professional development to make sure our teachers and support staff have the requisite knowledge, skills and abilities to address the needs of students. We still have a ways to go, and in terms of a timeline, I’ll say by the end of this year, we’ll have a significant increase in the number of teachers being trained."
There have been calls for Watts to resign throughout the school year, but the superintendent said he had no plans to step down.