By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Discipline referrals have declined within the Tupelo Public School District this year, a fact its new superintendent credits to student engagement.
For the first quarter of this school year, the district had 731 discipline referrals district-wide, a 53 percent decrease from the same period last year. That data does not include incidents on school buses. Including that, Tupelo has had 933 incidents during the first quarter, a 47 percent decrease from last year.
The decline is significant given that discipline in Tupelo’s schools has been the focus of public interest in recent years. During that time, there has been concern that discipline has been too lax, that students were not respecting teachers and that classrooms had become unruly.
The public’s general interest in discipline was a fact Superintendent Gearl Loden acknowledged while speaking to Tupelo’s Kiwanis Club on Friday, noting it can become an important conversation point of parents when they gather.
“We want safe and orderly schools,” he said.
The question about the new data, which was presented at Thursday’s school board meeting, is what exactly does it mean.
Board member Rob Hudson asked that question during Thursday’s meeting, acknowledging there could be a temptation not to record certain infractions to make the data look better.
Loden, however, said he believes the opposite is the case. He said he has emphasized teachers should feel free to write a referral when necessary. Any of those would be recorded in this data, he said.
Loden also quizzed all of the principals in the district about the data’s accuracy before releasing it.
“If we are prepared every day and teaching lessons that keep young people engaged, that helps with discipline,” Loden said.
He also said the district will use drug dogs at Tupelo Middle School and Tupelo High School to inspect both campuses. The dogs were at THS last week and didn’t find anything, he said.
Hudson said noticing a change in behaviors is more important than merely a change in numbers. He said he was encouraged by anecdotes from Assistant Superintendent Diana Ezell that she has noticed a changed culture.
“Two years ago when I was observing, I could count 20 kids as I walked from one building to another,” she said. “Today, I can walk on the campus and not see a student except in the classroom.”
Ezell credits several factors, including the high school’s new block schedule, which means that students change classes less frequently. She said teachers have worked hard to keep students engaged and the district emphasized classroom management techniques in its orientation for new teachers.
Ezell said the district isn’t merely relying on the number of referrals. It is also gathering input on discipline through surveys. Plus, she said, teachers have access to an anonymous online comment box.
In a recent survey, 89 percent of 1,600 third- to fifth-graders said they felt safe, as did 92 percent of 1,700 sixth- to 12th- graders.
Parent Terri Bauer recently said she didn’t like the strict punishment her son received after an incident on a school bus, but that she was happy overall with discipline in the district this year. Lynda Turner said that her granddaughter, also at Milam, hadn’t had any problems with discipline this year.
“It seems like they have tightened up on discipline this year,” said Sheila Oliver, who has children at Milam, Tupelo Middle School and Tupelo High School. “For a while they were lax, but I think they have tightened up this year.”