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Zero tolerance?
Officials respond to surge in school violence
Joe Buck

ON JAN. 17, campus police arrested a 16-year-old Savannah High School student who attacked a classmate. It was one of many fights at the school that day, but this one was particularly brutal.

The victim had a bottle of milk knocked out of his hand. When the milk spilled on other students, the victim and the suspect got into a fight.

The suspect grabbed the victim, put him in a headlock, and rammed his head into a glass trophy case. The victim had to be taken to Candler Hospital for stitches.

The next day, two girls began fighting near the cafeteria, and just down the hall, a male student was attacked by four others. On Jan. 23, it was Beach High School’s turn when three students attacked a fourth, striking him in the head -- with a belt buckle.

The victim ended up at Memorial for stitches and two of his assailants ended up in jail. One of the students was carrying a box cutter, but it wasn’t used in the attack.

The worst was yet to come. On Feb. 26, an unannounced search was conducted at Johnson High School and drugs, a knife and a razor blade were seized. Later, a student was attacked by four classmates, and when Principal Freddie Gilyard intervened, Gilyard was knocked down.

When classes were dismissed for the day, a third fight broke out in a hallway. In all, five students were arrested on weapons and drug charges.

It’s not just high schools. On Feb. 22, a 14-year-old DeRenne Middle School student was detained for attacking a smaller classmate and striking him in the head. The incident was caught on video by another student, who posted it on YouTube.

Portable metal detectors have been set up at Johnson High School and students must pass through them, while throughout the district, hall monitors are being used.

Only 5 percent of the district’s students are considered discipline problems. The district has its own campus police force, which includes investigators and patrol officers. All high and middle schools have officers that are assigned to them each day.

In response to the incidents, a press conference was held Feb. 28 at the Whitney Administrative Complex. “Our schools will be a safe environment for all real students -- period,” Superintendent Thomas Lockamy said.

“If a student is involved in fighting, bullying, gang activity or drug activity then they are not welcome in our schools,” Lockamy said. “They will be eliminated from our schools. They will be expelled.”

Lockamy said that students who are expelled won’t be allowed to attend alternative schools. “The few will not ruin the educational experience for the many,” he said.

For parents, Lockamy had a stern warning. “We are educators, not parents,” he said.

School board President Joe Buck and members of the board were present for Lockamy’s announcement. “I speak on behalf of the board to say enough is enough,” Buck said.

“Violence against students and school personnel will not be tolerated at any level,” he said. “Any, and I say again, any acts that relate to violence -- bullying, drugs, weapons, gangs, and most especially, fighting -- will be pursued at the highest level of sanction.

“To those parents who believe that they have no responsibility for their children and who leave it all up to the schools, we say that we will no longer assume that responsibility,” he said.

“If your children see violence, bullying, drugs, and gangs as the only answer for their lives, they have no place in the school system. You, as parents, gave them breath and you must assume full responsibility for their futures.”

Campus Police Chief Ulysses Bryant has been on the front lines of the battle. “The superintendent and board are sending a clear and present message -- we will not tolerate violence and misbehavior,” he said.

“I’m not going to say it’s gotten worse,” Bryant said. “We’ve had challenges in the past.”

James Putney, the 6th District director of the Georgia PTA, says the media has focused on the recent incidents. “The problems are in all the schools,” he said. “There are so many incidents we don’t hear about.”

Putney is organizing parents to help combat disciplinary problems. “Without parental involvement, no matter what the board does, things won’t change,” he says.