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State lawmakers get serious about classroom discipline

Data shows an alarming spike in violent crime against students and school staff. Legislators respond.

by: Sloan Rachmuth

Pervasive violence in school has become unbearable for tenth-grader Annie Kykendahl.

Last week, the teen shared with the Cabarrus County School Board the horrific story of how her younger sister was forcefully kicked in the face by a male student. She was given a concussion, forcing her to miss several days of school and a sports tryout. But the boy, her tormentor, faced no consequences for his actions.

Now both Annie and her sister live in perpetual fear they can be attacked at any moment in school, "If kids know they are not going to be punished, they will continue this behavior," she pointed out to the Board. "Violence has become more increasing and devastating."

Annie was also troubled by the vicious attack on a popular district bus driver. A high school student reportedly punched the 84-year-old driver in the face during School Bus Driver Appreciation Week last month.

The girl begged the Board member to "take bold action to create a safer environment for all."

State legislators have proposed a collection of bills to do just that.

House Bill 188 reverses a state law that classifies school offenses like inappropriate or disrespectful language, not following a “staff directive,” violating dress code, and fighting as minor violations. The bill allows principals and teachers to develop discipline policies that control learning environments and ensure students' safety.

Republican Rep. Ken Fontenot told the House Ed Committee that seemingly small infractions can have disruptive consequences.

"For instance, disrespectful language to a teacher. It’s an unsafe classroom when the teacher is not in control. Non-compliance with staff. What if a student is told to get out of the bus lane when a bus is coming? That is serious,” he said. “Dress code violations. It is probably serious if a young lady is exposing herself in a way that is not good for her or the male students or vice versa. And lastly, a minor physical altercation. Who’s to say what is minor if your bully is six-foot-three and you happen to be four-foot five?”

Democrat Rep. Cecil Brockman agreed with Fontenot that some of the supposedly minor violations listed in the current law were actually quite serious.

“I think the lessons that we’re teaching our kids matters,” he said. “And if we just say those type of things aren’t major, I think that that says a lot about why we’re in the situation that we’re in now.”

Brockman and two other Democrats crossed the aisle to vote for the bill, which is now waiting for a Senate vote.

Another bill addressing school discipline is House Bill 534 which increases penalties for assaulting school employees and volunteers. The law would charge students like the one who punched the Cabarrus County bus driver with the most serious misdemeanor.

Students who are repeat offenders will be charged with a felony. The law is making its way through House committees.


Crime and violence have risen 23.5% over the last year within North Carolina high schools, according to the latest report from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

These crimes saw the largest increases over 2018-2019, according to DPI:

Weapon Possession: + 60%

Firearm & Explosives Possession: + 30%

Drug Possession: + 14%

According to the DPI's report, behavior problems manifest well before students reach high school.

In pre-K through fifth grade, crimes are alarmingly prevalent. There were 614 reports of weapons possession and 13 reports of firearm possession in elementary schools. There were also 59 reports of drug possession..

Most surprising was the fact that 495 reports of assaults on school personnel came from these lower grades.

The pair of school discipline bills currently before the legislature will enable school officials to take much-needed action to hold problem students accountable. The laws could fulfill the wish of Cabarrus County high school student Annie Kykendahl and create "a safer environment for all."

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