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Why are so many teachers resigning? Some teachers and parents point to district’s discipline policies

Photo courtesy Aislinn Ritchie

BY AMBER THIBODAUX

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Summertime in Alachua County is in full swing – summer camps, swimming pools, watermelon, and wild flowers – sweet reminders of the innocence and joy summer brings to children everywhere as they relax and unwind before transitioning into a new school year. For Alachua County Public Schools, however, summertime has brought with it an urgency to fill over 130 job openings (as of June 23); 79 of those are teacher positions. The 2021-22 school year concluded with 68 resignations – 66 teachers and two administrators. This turnover rate highlights an important question: why are so many teachers leaving the Alachua County public school system? While there is no single reason that accounts for all the resignations, some parents and teachers point at rising incidents of disruptive and sometimes violent behavior, with a lack of appropriate discipline as a significant motivating factor. 

A local teacher who works with middle school students and wishes to remain anonymous (referred to as Ms. Smith henceforth for reference) alleges that the behavior and violence are out of control at her school because teachers aren’t supported by school administrators or the district when writing referrals or attempting to discipline students (a referral is a report documenting a specific behavior incident). 

Smith has documented numerous incidents in which she experienced troublesome and sometimes violent behavior in her classroom but encountered several roadblocks when trying to enter and record a referral into Skyward (the gradebook software used by Alachua County Public Schools). She told us, “We are all discouraged from using Skyward to enter discipline until we contact the deans. That is the first obstacle. It doesn’t officially get counted until the dean assigns it as an offense.”  

Smith says that the school board’s focus on closing the achievement gap and attaining “equity“ has led to an explicit goal of keeping referrals at equal numbers for each racial subcategory. According to Smith, if referrals for any racial subcategory exceed referrals for other racial subcategories, teachers are strongly encouraged to use a different form of discipline, and this is where she says different standards are being applied. She told us that the district goes so far as to “send awards for low percentages of certain subgroups [referrals] and [there is no award] if the other subgroup is over from a percentage standpoint.” 

“Goal is to reduce the risk ratio for African American students down to 1.0”

This is in adherence to the school’s School Improvement Plan (SIP), which states, in part, “While we strive to reduce suspensions, we want to increase our focus this year on reducing referrals for African American students, by reducing the number of problematic behaviors that occur. For the 21-22 school year, our goal is to reduce the risk ratio for African American students down to 1.0. This means that African American students on campus are no more likely than any other subcategory to receive a referral.” 

You can also see this goal in a “Monday Memo” sent to Alachua Chronicle by a staff member at Oak View Middle School: 

Most schools in the county have a “Planning for Improvement” section in the SIP with similar language. Smith says that because of this policy, “schools can and do quickly calculate how many referrals they should validate by assigning an offense [based on race].” She told us that teachers write referrals, and deans and other administrators make the decisions about which ones are entered into Skyward and thus counted as “official.”

Smith added, “Because we are being evaluated by this goal, there is pressure not to write referrals,” especially for African American students. Smith pointed out that the policy also creates a strained learning environment for all students, who have their lessons constantly disrupted by a few. She stresses that bad behavior transcends all subgroups, and that different subgroups may have a higher incidence of offenses in different months – therefore, trying to balance them in any given month is counterproductive. “Actions should be tied to consequences or interventions equally without worrying about artificially-created ceilings. Actions do not belong to a race so neither can consequences.” 

However, she adds that many kids observe the lack of consequences, so behavior continues to spiral out of control. “There is nothing more important to me than to see students experience success in a safe and productive learning environment,” she says. Smith believes that the data at her school is being modified to achieve the desired goal and that the district is “selectively asking teachers to enter referrals after they have processed a dean’s slip only if it suits them.” 

Smith added, “The unpleasant fact is that Alachua County Schools have been underreporting disrespectful, disruptive, and sometimes violent acts. What parents need to know is that their child’s precious instructional time is being stolen by students who cannot or will not operate within reasonable expectations of a public school classroom.”

Teachers’ union survey echoes Ms. Smith’s concerns

Smith’s sentiment was recently echoed by teachers and administrators throughout the district, with the promise of anonymity. In a survey conducted in January 2022 by the Alachua County Education Association (ACEA), teachers and administrators were asked a series of questions on a wide variety of topics, including student discipline. The following answers are taken from responses to the question, “What concerns do you have regarding how the district handles school discipline?” 

  • There is no accountability to the parents
  • Free pass so district numbers look good. No student accountability
  • Not handled equally
  • No real consequences are provided, and it feels like we can’t actually discipline kids if they fit certain demographics 
  • Students are treated differently based on race 
  • Staff expected to tolerate abusive behavior from students, process for getting abusive students where they need to be is long
  • Some schools don’t process referrals, so it makes it look like we have less behavior issues
  • Serious infractions are not handled. Everything becomes a race issue. Students are not removed from class who are dangerous
  • The district makes it hard for deans to discipline certain students
  • The district only seems to care about avoiding negative statistical data, not actual solutions
  • We have been discouraged from writing referrals
  • No consequences, lack of properly inputting discipline into Skyward for fear of retribution

The following answers are taken from responses to the question, “What suggestions/solutions do you have for improving how the district handles student discipline?”:   

  • Stop PBIS [Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports], apply the laws fair and equally, stop worrying about race and gender in discipline
  • Give aides to teachers to assist with discipline issues, stop taking so long to move kids to other schools when needed
  • Students should have some form of consequence and it should be across the board regardless of race
  • Parents should be held accountable for their children’s behavior and provide support as needed
  • Help us find the root of the problem instead of slapping a smiley behavior chart on our desk for us to implement
  • Removing students when they create an unsafe or disruptive environment
  • The school should not be required to babysit students who don’t want to learn and parents who don’t care to help
  • Base discipline on the offense and not the skin color
  • Punish chronically disruptive students no matter their race, stop making race an issue

Discouraging referrals in general is not new

Retired Alachua County school teacher Bob Jones, who spent 34 years of his 37-year teaching career at Gainesville High School, says the problem of discouraging teachers from writing referrals is not new; he encountered very similar issues a decade ago when attempting to control bad behavior in his classroom – which led to several arguments with his assistant principal and principal. Jones says that because each school had a rating on how many referrals were written by faculty, it started to become a game to the participants. “Instead of ‘what a great job your teachers are doing at handling discipline,’ it was all about ‘don’t write any referrals, it hurts our report status!’ If you as a teacher handled the situation and any paperwork was generated from it, then you were the problem,” Jones recalled. “They only cared about being on the very bottom of the referral list for bragging rights. The report says everything is excellent when in reality it was exploding in unhindered behavior.”

Jones says that Kirby Smith (the Alachua County school district headquarters) is “calling all the shots on this subject,” even though, he claims, these individuals have not been in a classroom in decades, if ever.  “A teacher could be writing a large number of referrals trying to control a situation that has been going unanswered. It’s in reality what should be occurring.” But Jones says that instead of the administration supporting the teachers in the classroom, they would say it was the teacher’s fault for not relating well to low-performing students: “My argument was, there is an acceptable and defined set of expectations on behavior for everyone, period. You as a student deviate from that, and you can expect the following in return. Just the same as in society if you’re doing something wrong.” 

Jones also points out that some of the blame needs to be placed on parents as well. He recalls, “[If I] contact a parent, they are often shocked that I have a problem with being told to f*** off when told to put [their] phone up or stop talking in class. I often hear, ‘Well, that’s common language around our home, so you just need to get over it,’ or ‘Yeah, I agree, but we can’t handle them at home either.’” He says this is all part of the frustration teachers are feeling.

School board candidates agree that student behavior is an issue

School board member Mildred Russell, who is running in District 2 against Diyonne McGraw, acknowledges that student behavior is a “major concern in our schools.” She points out that “the board has good policy regarding behavior and discipline, but lately the district has not been clear about how teachers should respond to behavior problems.” Russell recently requested that the School Board schedule a workshop with the principal and dean at A. Quinn Jones (the district’s alternative placement center for 6th-12th-grade students), so they can educate the board on what they do to change student behavior. “I am in favor of learning from those who are successful at improving student outcomes. My mission is to find out what works and learn how to implement it in our schools.”

Diyonne McGraw also recognizes the concern parents and teachers have and believes that many of the behavior policies are outdated and therefore “no longer impactful relative to identifying, addressing, deterring, and adequately changing behaviors.” Her approach involves changing the focus from unproductive punishments to impact consequences that shift future actions, where students will then “experience the much-needed shift in their learning environment.”

“Current policies are written from a disciplinary perspective with no intervention work or proactive methods in place and very little in terms of accountability and reconstruction of default behaviors. This is why a child can be suspended and return with no change in behavior,” says McGraw.  

District 5 candidate Kay Abbitt told us, “My thought is that students and parents must understand that unacceptable behaviors (blatant disrespect, classroom misconduct) will not be tolerated and that there will be consequences. Teachers need to know that administration will have their back when there are consequences given for behavior, and principals need to know the district will back them up when parents complain to the district.”

District 3 candidate Ray Holt said teachers have told him that at least 30 percent of their class time is spent dealing with disruptions, “which not only puts an enormous amount of pressure on them to finish their lesson plan but steals time from the other students in the class.” Holt added that the teachers he’s spoken with say the problem has gotten progressively worse in the last four years and that a failure to follow the student code of conduct is to blame.

Holt added, “We can’t expect students to consistently follow the rules if our own administration won’t consistently follow them in enforcement of the rules. The administration has been discouraging teachers from holding students accountable to the code of conduct, and the students have noticed. Some students have taken advantage of that mistake.”

The remaining school board candidates did not respond to our request for comment.

Parents share their experiences

The district’s official policies and recommendations, which may sound good on paper, don’t always translate to actual classroom experiences. Lovel Banks, a local parent who reached out to Alachua Chronicle, says he was approached by two teacher friends who were afraid to come forward but did relay their experiences to him. He reiterates the point made by Mr. Jones, that parents are not involved in the discipline of their children and some expect the school to “just deal with it.” 

“One of the teachers is at a middle school ,and she saw teachers pushed aside by students when there were fights. No assault charges were filed against those students. That teacher also saw students verbally threaten and harass teachers. No expulsions there,” Banks said. “There was a TikTok challenge to slap a teacher on the behind and another challenge to pour water over a dean’s head and video tape it. Both teachers said that TikTok needs to be banned and that social media is the greatest downfall of these kids.” He says students’ mental health is not being cared for at home, nor does the school deal with truancy issues consistently: “There are students who miss a great deal of school, and there is no follow up at home.”

Not all parents were negative, however. Shelly Stephens, whose son attends Santa Fe High School, says her son was being bullied by several classmates, but the school administration was quick to take action against the victimizers. “They removed the kids who did it from his classes and informed them should they even make a sound in his direction, they would be expelled,” Stephens said. “So far nothing. We are doing good.”

Carmen Ward, president of the Alachua County Education Association, briefly addressed the topic of student discipline at the April 5 and June 7 school board meetings. She acknowledged the recurring problem for the district but added that most students “demonstrate great citizenship.”  

“I hope we can create some more peace in our schools for this coming year,” Ward said.  “Discipline is on the minds of many… we really have to change course in our district. We do need to address those that are a problem in a more effective way.” Ward said she believes there should be “zero tolerance for violence” and continued, “As adults, as educators, the most loving, kind thing we can do for students is to teach them that their behaviors have consequences and let them experience the consequences of their behaviors so that they don’t carry that on in their life after school… It is a crisis; we have a violence problem, and we want our schools to be safe, not only for the employees but for the students, because if there’s this much violence towards employees, there is also violence happening in schools towards other students, at even a greater level.”

You can read the school board candidates’ full replies here.

  • Alachua County Public Schools racist against Whites in 2022? Imagine that

      • Alachua County as South Africa with Whites Under Attack…is that what the Dirty Dozen (5 County/7 Gainesville Commission) wants? Were they just following global corporate marching orders?

      • “Takin’ Care of Business” is a song written by Randy Bachman and first recorded by Canadian rock group Bachman–Turner Overdrive (BTO) for their 1973 album Bachman–Turner Overdrive II

          • CorporateCovidFunds wanna teach about PharmaDeathCultAbortionsTraumaBlunt

  • I’m a teacher in a small district. We are told by admin that if we write a referral, we are ‘ giving up our power’ and showing the student they have won. That’s some manipulation for sure.

    • I remember back in middle School a kid kept being disruptive & intentionally distracting me. I got fed up with the teacher not doing anything so I dragged the kid out & kicked him. Man it felt great

    • Yes I am giving my power up. I have tried (list of behavior interventions go here). The other students the class deserve an education also. What about them? Your turn to try.

  • (((Stock picture could have a black kid hitting a white kid, but why Kabbalah bother)))

  • if you mention black people, white devils might consider jew evil

  • harbingersdaily (7/1/22): Probably the most near-term prophecy scheduled for fulfillment besides the Isaiah 17 predicted destruction of Damascus is the Gog-Magog assault on Israel

  • What also needs to be looked at it whether there is bias (explicit or implicit) in the way in which teachers deal with African-American vs. white students. I think this is likely to be a contributing factor although, of course, not the only reason.

    • Why would they be biased? I guess that’s a rhetorical question.

    • If you ever volunteer to help out in your child’s classroom, you know that this bias crap is pure BS. It would actually shock most parents to see how a small group of students basically runs wild in each class, while the rest of the students and even the teacher sit in quiet, awkward terror pretending that nothing is happening. Kids are crawling on the desks, violently taking crayons etc. right out of other children’s hands, pushing other students, yelling and talking randomly. It’s more like an asylum than a classroom.

    • What about the implicit bias of letting a child of any race destroy the learning opportunity for African-American students? Maybe we should be running the spreadsheets to count the lost productive learning time by race rather than focusing on the race of the miscreants.

  • May 1st Shooting Still Mystery (not comfy)

    Gainesville Sun (July 19, 2021): One person was killed and four others injured in a Sunday night shooting. Gainesville police had no suspects in custody as of Monday.

    Cold Case Gainesville?

  • Great article! Truthful in all the eyes of educators that will read it and pass it along.

    • This is BigPharma dosing situation. Wake up to all the RockefellerMedicalPatients

  • Sister Mary Catherine was our Catholic school principal. 5’ tall and a sweetheart,unless you were sent to her office for acting up. 5 quick wacks with her metal ruler would sting like hell. Discipline issue solved!

    • I was smacked on the hand with a ruler in first grade
      Catholic school, never forgot that. Got a whack with the
      Paddle in 5th grade and never forgot that…if you acted up in junior high, you would get sent to the PE teacher
      To get a whack with the paddle. Horseplay in PE? Wack
      With the paddle. Dirty gym clothes? Whack with the paddle. There were no disciplinary problems in the old days with the paddle…it was a very good deterrent. Kids behaved. I heard about “suspension”, but don’t know
      Anyone who was. This was in Miami, Fl in in 60’s to
      Almost 80’s in large schools. No problems.

  • Which County received the only A in NC Florida? Why do you think that is?
    Seriously

  • AC/DC (stylised as ACϟDC) are an Australian rock band formed in Sydney in 1973 by Scottish-born brothers Malcolm and Angus Young

  • Require uniforms in public schools. No backpacks or
    Phones. Just loose-leaf folders. Get permission from
    Parent if kids gonna get paddled. If kid is unruly, special school for bad kids.

    • We’ve been there/done that. Uniform policy in Ala co school system ran its course for about 10 years. I feel Corporal punishment would be a step backwards.

      • Backwards how? Lack of discipline is regressive. It is something that distinguishes civilized society from one that lacks it.

        Still waiting on your response to “forced” change in leadership.

        • Teachers worried about their feelings and always wanting to share their feelings is half the problem. Tell it to your counselor on the therapy couch. In the meantime, if students are being repeatedly disruptive, they should be sent to the dean or principal to have their ass beat with a paddle. Not talk about it for an hour like they think they’re on the Oprah Winfrey show. That’s good if it’s humiliating, by the way. It might save them from getting shot by a cop because they can’t handle any authority figure. Learn respect.

  • As a retired Alachua county educator I am very concerned about many of the views expressed here. There is a heavy overlay of blame on students’ misbehavior that seems to think punishment, even suspension or the ultimate- expulsion would be the answer. I know from classroom experience how important it is to establish classroom rules/structure/but also to be supported by good administrators and support staff.(classroom ESE aides, in-school detention options, counselors ) Our system has lost some of those supports due to either shortages or district re-prioritizing of funds.
    Our cultural norms have been changing for decades with parents,and other adults in public positions showing extremely poor modeling of behavior. There’s also a lot of disrespect toward Educators being promoted/condoned by our own state Education department. I’ve served on our Alachua county Schools Discipline Committee, for the past 2 years. I know what extensive plans have been worked on and in place as the Discipline Handbook in concert with our District Code of Conduct- with input from all schools. I also realize that some schools have much better implementation than others.
    There was a significant forced change in leadership for this committee a year ago that left our district with a void at a crucial time (post Covid) I feel we took steps backwards not forwards in this very important area.
    Additionally, we have a severe teacher shortage for reasons beyond our control, though we know there is a push to privatize, as do many states, so we have many more teachers with less certification/experience so their skills for classroom management are weak.
    With respect to the interviews with the school board member and candidate for school board – their knowledge of the details of the District Discipline plan is somewhat limited.
    It’s just not as simple to fix, as some suggest, with such complex disparities. The world has been changing in such profound ways and our schools reflect it. I remain hopeful that our school community will continue to work to provide a balance between discipline and support for both students and teachers.

    • You sound like somebody who talks too much but doesn’t ever get anything done. Perhaps you should just go ahead and completely retire.

      • I believe she mentioned she was retired in the first sentence.

        That being said, some of her thoughts are true. When this district chooses to disregard the legal authority of the Governor and the State Department of Education how can we expect our children to respect the authority of the teachers and administration within the school system?

        It starts at home. That’s the bottom line. Making excuses for a lack of discipline isn’t going to fix it. Making excuses for a parent not taking a more active role in their child(ren)’s education isn’t going to fix it. Stop blaming it on things we have no control over.

        I am curious as to her opinion on the “forced” change of leadership last year. Maybe she’ll indicate whether it was warranted and if she was referring to the superintendent or the board member. We’ll then have an understanding of whether she stands by her assessment or is a hypocrite.

        What the author of the article has stated is essentially true. The district has been making efforts to “shield” and “limit” the behavioral issues occuring within certain demographic groups within the county. The question is, who is responsible for mandating that policy? Was it the Board or was it the Superintendent? Better yet, what are they trying to hide?

      • Sounds like the committee spent most of its time (and taxpayer funding) coming up with excuses for why they can’t solve the problem. A quick count has eight different ones in just this post.

      • Peabody…you’re brilliant! Always look forward to your stuff. You’re right on!

    • Sounds like she learned what she taught her students . No personal responsibility or respect. Just excuses and tollerating going backwards. Yep a Culture that has created this mess.

  • When we cultivate a norm where defiance is revered, “specialness” is the only thing that makes a person valuable and adults who expect government to show up and save everyone instead of expecting personal responsibility are bullies with big mouths and mics in front of them, how on earth are we going to get kids to demonstrate respect, deference and ownership? Without these… no behavior can change.

  • Had one of my children attending 2nd grade at Hidden Oak elementary. He was being bullied by several AA students. I scheduled a meeting with the teacher and she described the problem started when she “ran out of corners” meaning she put the trouble makers in the corner desks so she could limit their ability to harass the other students but they had too many and my son was one of their frequent targets. I took all of my (all five) children out of public school and home schooled them. I realize not everyone can do this but I got a second job in order to afford it. Best decision I ever made. I feel sorry for the teachers but they need to stand up to this woke BS.

  • This all comes down to the fact that PARENTS AREN’T DOING THEIR JOB IN RAISING THEIR KIDS. Kids should be raised in a civil matter starting with the day they come home from the hospital—-not once they start school. I think student discipline is the main reason teachers are quitting. Administrators need to get tough. It’s hard to find a good administrator these days.

  • I’ve experienced the lack of discipline and referrals first hand at the elementary school I worked at. I even called the principal out verbally for pushing referrals under the rug to protect the schools integrity rating. I had to call HR to address the lack of discipline regarding a particular student who was frequently disruptive and non-compliant.

  • Alachua county has the WORST teachers, principals and staff. Also they need to start caring about our special needs children instead of the checks they get for them attending the schools program. This is why my child is homeschooled. Please start doing better cause right now y’all are a TOTAL MESS.

    • Have you thought you may have the worst child? Many others don’t share your thoughts.

      I think a comment has been made already about placing blame instead of accepting.

    • Carla…Maybe it’s your child who is one of the worst in Alachua County.

      I’ve already made mention of passing the blame to someone/something else. It’s easier to shirk responsibility rather than accept it.

  • Natural News (7/8/2022): “2000 Mules” documentary prompts Michigan Republicans to call for new probe into 2020 election

  • Ohhh the little darlings who are rewarded for bad behavior are the reason many will retire!! I know my sister just did. Why butt heads with folks who are only interest in coddling one group!?

  • We need to Triple the amount of Charter Schools in Alachua County in the next 3 years. This is for the children that will benifit , not cheaters and clueless Board Members pat and present .They can no longer deny they beat the ACPS hand down.The Charter School Grades are self evident to the dismay of the SOS Teachers Union. So is it about the Kids or THEM. Speaking of that Has McGraw paid the Taxpayers back for her ill gotten gains? Is it about the Kids or her trying to get away with Cheating and theivery.

  • With all of this documented “kick the can” down the road, what happens when there is a school shooting in Alachua County? Where does the blame fall? The administrators that wanted low behavior reporting numbers for certain races, the school board that has implemented these policies? The parents who have washed their hands of parenting? These small groups of disruptive kids that have no regard for the rules will push the rules too far and hurt someone one day. Or the ones feeling neglected and that they don’t have a voice or feel they aren’t getting a fair shake at school because of a small number of unruly, unaccountable children will get tired of being lost in the shuffle and choose violence as a way to be heard. Who cares about numbers? If race, gender, religion, etc truly do not matter then it truly doesn’t matter. Punish students equally regardless of any issue that may not seem PC. In life there are consequences for actions. And if school is a safe place than it should be just that. The buck stops at those four walls. Draw the line in the sand and say x, y and z is unacceptable, this will be the punishment and then enforce it. Personal accountability is still a thing. School is their job right now. Show up, do a good job and go home. The scared ones can’t do a good job and the disruptive ones haven’t learned accountability. Kids aren’t dumb. They know when they go to grandmas house they have to straighten up and act right. Maybe they should feel that way about school. School can be tough on behavior, fun on learning and positive on life skills. It doesn’t have to be a one or another. SBAC and it’s employees need to be a team. And teachers need to know they have a team supporting them. Fix this before a kid does something really bad and everyone wants to point blame and say “I don’t know how we got here”. You do know. This article explains exactly how you are leading these kids to more problems. Be the change, grown ups.

  • These problems hold true for our nation as a whole. We are experiencing a great exodus due to a rise in behavior and little to no support. Students are not held accountable for their actions and will continue to do what ever they want because they can. In any other location, this would be considered a hostile work environment but since it is a school no one realizes how bad things have gotten. We are told to continue to model appropriate behavior. Speak to your students with respect. Be mindful of the words you use. Continue to engage in open communication with students and families. These are all the strategies we use anyway. We need to take our country back and it starts with educating our future workforce. In order to do so we need to remove students who continue to disrupt the classroom environment and continue to be disrespectful and hostile to both adults and their peers. Alternative settings need to be created for these select students. If not we are looking at a violent, ignorant, bleak future for America.

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