Group fights can lead to a full year of suspension from school in a discipline measure approved in response to increased violence at Fulton County Schools.

Superintendent Mike Looney at a Feb. 17 board meeting went over actions and programs aimed at curbing fights and reducing the number of weapons brought to school.

Superintendent Mike Looney

“I know that this is a big push for us right now as it should be, because these are the challenges that every district across the country is currently facing. So it’s not just Fulton County, it’s not just certain schools,” FCS Board President Julia Bernath said.

Group fights are categorized as tier four offenses. After due process, recommendations will be for up to a full year of suspension, Looney said.

“We would treat group fights in a more harsh and disciplined manner because they’re more disruptive and have the potential to create more harm,” he said. “So if there are parents or students listening, please know that we take group fights extremely seriously.”

Bringing a weapon to school will be treated just as seriously, he said. In meetings he’s had with the Fulton County District Attorney and two of her assistant district attorneys, they promised to follow through to press charges and seek convictions against students who bring weapons to school, Looney said.

“I have personally met with the district attorney’s office twice within the last month,” he said. “I brought some senior staff members with me to those meetings to improve our collaboration and coordination as to how the district attorney’s office, the juvenile courts, local law enforcement agencies, the school district, and mental health providers can all come together and work for the betterment of our community.”

Looney said the school system’s administration wants to establish a multi-agency truancy and crime prevention coalition. Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts offered to host and facilitate the agency’s first meeting

“The purpose of that is to solve for the truancy issues that we’re facing and the crime issues that we’re facing,” Looney said.

They recognize that students who are not at school could be on the streets doing other things. The agency would look for a solution to get children in school and prevent the increase in crime in all communities.

Looney also wants the district to participate in the district attorney’s gang violence training program, along with law enforcement partners.

The board had authorized the superintendent to hire 10 additional campus security associates for the reset of the year.

FCS administrators have been meeting with school communities in the district to help find solutions.

The school district also expanded access to its anonymous tip line.

“Every student now has access to the tip line directly on their school district issued device. It is sitting right there as an icon on their devices,” he said.

Another way to improve security has been to upgrade surveillance camera equipment. The detail seen in the images enables staff to see what contraband students have brought to school grounds.

Preventive measures expanded

The school district is also looking at preventive measures. 

“The idea of restorative practices is to stop incidents from occurring by trying to resolve them before they occur. And then if they do occur, to make peace with one another so that the students can continue to go to school,” Looney said.

Measures taken to accomplish this include implementing the student success skills program across the district, which creates standards for supporting students and their emotional health.

The school district recognized many students experienced trauma and grief as a result of the pandemic, so it has expanded a contract with a restorative practice expert. Several schools have experienced success by using restorative practices, so the expert will provide training to educators on how to do that.

Positive behavior and behavior intervention support systems have been expanded at all FCS schools. And the district implemented a threat assessment protocol to include an external mental health screening process when students threaten violence, whether through self harm or to others.

“We are also partnering with external agencies to provide mental health services such as Odyssey, Summit Counseling and others,” Looney said.

The district also deploys 10 social emotional social workers to schools where students are struggling with crises.

Plans moving forward

The school board will be asked to approve a budget that includes an additional social worker for each high school.

The Bridge to Success plan would expand safe centers in select schools across the district so students have additional support that they may need to be safe and nurtured. Mentoring groups would be expanded with the help of other agencies and community groups.

Next year, additional security associates would be hired for middle and high schools. The school district also will increase the number of days police officers work by 10 days to 200 days to give them more time for training.

Other security measures include increased lighting on campuses and eliminating potential hiding places by putting bushes and trees farther away from school buildings.

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Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.