Columbia County schools were safer last school year than the year before.
Discipline statistics released last week by school system officials show an 8.4 percent drop in the total number of reported discipline offenses -- from 11,085 in 2008-09 to 10,159 in 2009-2010.
Deputy Superintendent Sandra Carraway said school officials meticulously document all incidents of offenses in schools. The one exception to uniform reporting is tardiness, which is handled differently at each school.
"Every sneeze gets reported," she said.
The statistics document from seemingly trivial incidents of repeated violations of the dress code and cell phone usage to more serious incidents of alcohol, tobacco, drugs and weapons found on school property. The list also addresses crimes against other persons, including fighting, terroristic threats, sexual offenses, robbery and murder.
In its first year, Grovetown High School staff reported 1,547, the most incidents at a single school followed by 1,458 at Lakeside High and 1,235 at Evans High.
Grovetown also had the county's highest number of fighting and disorderly conduct -- 33 and 39, respectively. The school with the next highest numbers was Greenbrier High, which reported 21 fighting incidents and eight disorderly conduct offenses.
"Oftentimes when you unite different populations, it can be kind of like meshing new family," Carraway said of the school where former students from Greenbrier, Harlem and Evans high schools transferred last school year.
The majority of Grovetown's incidents occurred early in the year, when students and staff first came together.
The numbers also can be misleading, as every student involved in a fight, or in an incident preceding a fight in the case of disorderly conduct, counts as a separate reported incident.
Grovetown High School Principal Penny Jackson said 18 of the 33 fight incidents stemmed from a single brawl at the start of the school year.
Even students not actively taking part in the fight, just "egging it on," were punished, Jackson said.
"We wanted to make a clear statement right from the start that we weren't going to tolerate this behavior," she said.
Such statements were particularly necessary this first year, Jackson said, because tensions were high with so many students still identifying themselves with their former schools.
Jackson also believes it was the school's strict stance that resulted in so many overall reports.
Many teachers, she believes, were "trigger happy" in sending students to the office for punishment. For this school year, Jackson said she intends to make the criteria for an actionable offense more uniform, so all teachers better know when and how to discipline students.
The highest number of incidents among all schools, including elementary and middle schools in most cases, fell under the catch-all category of "other serious incidents." These incidents make up a majority of each school's total number of incidents. For instance, 1,348 of the total 1,458 incidents reported at Lakeside High School fell into this category.
Carraway said that category includes any offenses that result in suspension, including recurrent tardiness or repeated violations of the dress code or cell phone policy.
"That's a big one," Carraway said of students using cell phones in school.
The statistics also showed 118 drug incidents in schools, mostly in high schools, in the 2009-10 school year.
"Drugs are always a concern," Carraway said, adding school officials routinely allow the Columbia County Sheriff's Office canine unit to search the schools. "Many of our drug cases are not illegal drugs," she said.
The 109 drug incidents in 2008-09 were not categorized. But more recent numbers were separated into over-the-counter, prescription and illegal drugs. Nearly half of the incidents involved prescription or over-the-counter drugs.
Carraway said all medications brought onto school campuses must be checked into the offices for dispensing by school nurses. Anyone caught taking medications, even ibuprofen or aspirin, is noted. Other pupils can misunderstand if they see another taking pills during the school day, she said.
The number of incidents of weapons on school grounds dropped by one to 40 in the most recent school year. None of the incidents involved guns, and only one, a hunting rifle, was reported in the 2008-09 school year.
Of the 27 knife incidents, four occurred in elementary schools, 14 in middle schools and nine in high schools.
"Of those knife incidents, the vast majority were turned in by the children having them," said Carraway.
If pupils accidentally bring knives to school with no malicious intent and turn them in to the office, they usually are not punished. But the incident is noted, she said.
The school system figures show no serious incidents such as homicide, arson, kidnapping or robbery.
To have 10,159 incidents during the 180 days the 23,000 pupils attended school isn't too bad, Carraway said, but that there's always room for improvement.
With ever-rising standards, however, Carraway said instructional classroom time is becoming more valuable. School system officials are always looking for ways to deal with discipline issues that don't include punishments, such as suspension, that take pupils out of the classroom.
"When you have kids who are being put in in-school suspension for tardies, for dress code and for cell phones, that's a problem," she said. "Because when they are not in class, they are not learning to their maximum ability. That's where we need them ... in the classroom and engaged."
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.