Franklin County Schools: Discrimination and Discipline

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

The Franklin County School Board grappled with two weighty issues at the May 9 meeting: the districts failure to fully satisfy the 1964 federal mandate calling for desegregation of the schools, and changing the discipline policy from a prescribed list of punishments to discipline based on individual assessment of students’ behavior. The board also approved the 2022-2023 calendar changing the abbreviated days for the coming year.

Marcus Allgood, grandson of Emma Hill who was instrumental in filing the 1964 desegregation lawsuit, addressed the board asking for an update on the districts intention to seek Unitary status, the standard signifying the district has eliminated the vestiges of prior segregation to the greatest extent practicable. Allgood said in response to the district’s most recent attempt to seek Unitary status in 2002, the federal courts found the district “had achieved ‘unitary status’ in transportation, extracurricular activities, school construction, student transfer, and faculty desegregation, [but] the district still needed to work on student assignment, staff desegregation, and quality of education.” In support of Allgood, Charliss Burnett, 1982 Franklin County High School graduate, said, “Nothing has changed in 60 something years.” Burnett pointed to her daughter being wrongly cited for misbehavior when her daughter was not in school that day. Juliette Taylor, Emma Hill’s daughter and a student during the first years of desegregation, said she had spoken at Vanderbilt University and numerous public venues. “I’m tired of talking about it. When does it end? I don’t want to die knowing my mother’s work was in vain.”

Director of Schools Stanley Bean said he had consulted with the district’s attorney Chuck Cagle about the Unitary status issue. Bean quoted from Cagle’s written reply which questioned whether there was “an active case that could be reopened.” Cagle also questioned “how applying for Unitary status would change, let alone improve, the operation of the school system.” Bean stressed there would be costs involved, according to Cagle.

Bean further pointed out in response to the 2021 Office of Civil Rights citation, the district had committed to addressing all complaints on a case-by-case basis. Some remedial actions proposed by the district have not yet been ruled on by the OCR.

Allgood argued applying for Unitary status “would cause you to see were you are in your policies, is there discrimination? If there is it [will] highlight those areas that need to be corrected.”

Board member Sarah Marhevsky asked what the district would need to do to seek Unitary status. Bean said he would research the process and present it to the board for discussion next month.

North Middle School Principal Holly Eslick and Huntland School Principal Ken Bishop talked about their schools’ positive experiences with Trauma Informed educational practices. Bishop cited research showing the brain of a two-year-old child made a million neural connections per second. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) disrupt the process.

“There is a reason behind every behavior,” Bishop stressed. “A person who loses neural connections early honestly doesn’t know how to behave, because they never learned it.” He gave the example of a verbally abusive student who confided his father punished him by not allowing him to bathe. Bishop arranged for the student to shower at the school.

“When a child has stress in their life, they can’t come in and learn, because their brain is in a constant state of stress,” Eslick insisted. “Kids ask for love in the most unloving ways.”

Following up on the discussion, board member Sarah Liechty proposed a committee form to revise the Code of Conduct “to better recognize Trauma Informed Discipline practices.” Liechty said a trauma-informed approach would consist of a Behavior Team “to assess the cause of behavior and make recommendations to change the behavior,” rather than applying a code of discipline based on a “lock-step process that treats every child the same.” Liechty pointed out Trauma Informed discipline was codified by law as best practices in 2019. “What we’re doing now doesn’t respect the law.”

Taking up the 2022-2023 calendar, the board voted to change one of the three abbreviated days, ending at 9:30 a.m., to the day before Christmas vacation, rather than the first day of school. The other two abbreviated days will remain the same, Homecoming and the last day of instruction.

The board will have a budget workshop at 6 p.m., Monday, May 16.

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