NEWS- Buford blues: Assaults spur debate at city school

No one argues that it hasn't been a tough year at Buford Middle School. According to several teachers and police records, there have been at least a dozen serious incidents this year, including two in the last month– one in which a hallway brawl led to three student arrests, and another in which two students were seen handling a pellet gun at the bus stop before school.

But is enough being done to prevent further violence?

Buford principal Tim Flynn says yes. "All the policies are in place," he says, "and the superintendent has been very supportive."

But some teachers are claiming the problems with violence are only going to get worse if the school administration doesn't do more to keep the students and staff safe.

The main issue, they say, is a lack of discipline.

"We can't get kids expelled," says one teacher, who requests anonymity citing fear of reprisal from the administration. "One of our assistant principals was body-slammed into the conference room wall, and the kid was back in school."

Indeed, interim superintendent Bobby Thompson confirms the incident occurred, but he says it was not necessarily a deliberate assault.

"A girl was in the office after she'd been in a fight and she lost her cool," Thompson says. "The assistant principal did try to restrain her from leaving the office."

The teacher says it's that kind of reaction– or non-reaction– from the administration that has her upset.

"If a kid even threatened me and then was back in school," she says, "I would quit."

But the decision to expel a student, says Thompson, is a hard call to make, since some of the students who get in the most trouble are the ones who most need the structure school provides.

"When students are expelled, that means they are out for 365 days– not getting anything," says Thompson. "They can't move to another public school district."

It's procedurally complicated to expel a student, as well, Thompson says. First, the principal must give a "referral"– a recommendation for expulsion. That referral is then sent to the superintendent, who independently investigates the incident. Most cases end there, with the principal and superintendent agreeing to a lesser sanction– such as sending the student to the alternative school program, which takes in pupils with discipline issues in grades seven to 12 (and which currently is at capacity, according to W.T. Lewis, acting director of support services for the city schools).

Expulsion is "rare, and it's used as a last resort, as it should be," says Flynn.

In cases in which the superintendent agrees that expulsion is appropriate, the school board must hear the case.

This year, says school board member Ned Michie, the board has heard only six disciplinary hearings– and of those, only "two or three" were Buford students. Michie says the most recent incidents have not yet come before the board.

The concerned Buford teacher says the lack of expulsions is not the school system's only disciplinary failure. She'd like to see preventive measures taken inside the school.

"I'm not seeing any steps taken to solve the problem," she says. "The principal talked about putting video cameras in the halls and tightening up on little things. At the beginning of year, the big push was to give referrals for small infractions." That's not happening, she says, and she's not the only teacher who feels that way.

"From day to day, it doesn't feel like a dangerous school, but then you hear and know the things that have gone on," says another Buford staffer, who also requested anonymity.

Thompson says the administration is working hard to make Buford a safer place. He cites this year's creation of a full time dean of students position, as well as the assignment of two public safety officers. And, he says, like the teachers, he'd like to see video cameras in both Buford and Charlottesville High School.

"If we had sufficient funds we'd do it," he says. "They are a good deterrent, even though when kids fight it's a spontaneous kind of thing."

Whatever measures are taken, teachers and administrators can agree that creating a safe environment must be a priority.

"We take disciplinary matters very seriously," Michie says. "There's nothing more important than the safety of other students and teachers."

Turmoil at Buford has some teachers concerned.

It's procedurally complicated to expel a student, says interim superintendent Bobby Thompson.