Three years ago, Augusta school tribunal hearings were a quick thing. Meet one day a week, mete out punishments, go home.
Now, they're like time-sucking monsters, eating up the schedules of teachers and principals assigned to the cases. Tribunals routinely meet three days a week this year.
From Aug. 15 to Dec. 3, Richmond County educators have handled 142 tribunal cases involving 176 students. That's a 16 percent increase over the number of tribunals during the same time frame in 1995, when 122 cases involving 162 students were heard.
"We've seen a marked increase in the last two years," said Maj. Mike Farrell, school police chief. "And we've had a minimal increase every year in bus incidents, too, for the last couple of years."
Part of the increase can be attributed to a new zero tolerance policy on drugs, implemented in August. Students now are being sent to the alternative school when found guilty of having drugs on campus, instead of being suspended as in the past.
"Enrollment is increasing as a result of zero tolerance for drugs," said Winnette Bradley, principal of the alternative school.
But drugs aren't the only violations sending students to Mrs. Bradley. Assaults on teachers and other school employees resulted in the most violations, with 32 students found guilty of such an offense as of Nov. 15. Bringing weapons on campus - usually a box cutter or knife - was another high category, with 28 students found guilty in tribunal as of Nov. 15. Augusta schools also have a zero tolerance policy on weapons possession.
"I don't think it's anything different, I just think it's being more aggressive," said Ken Echols, school board president. "From a bad standpoint, it's unfortunate that we are having to do that. But from a good standpoint, it tells me that we are being more aggressive with problem students and these cases."
Mrs. Bradley said she has seen one positive trend out of the tribunal hearings - fewer fights among students.
"The more violent fights that we've seen in the past, we don't see that many (now) and that's an improvement," she said.
The tribunal panel sends most students it finds guilty to the alternative school but can also give a student in-school or out-school suspension. Six of the 176 students in tribunals this year were found not guilty.
"We have seen a tremendous amount of students coming in to us for a minimum of 20 days," Mrs. Bradley said, referring to the minimum punishment under the new drug policy. Offenses range from "marijuana to those who are actually selling their medication to other students."
As of Wednesday, 105 students were assigned to the alternative school, the highest enrollment yet in the 1996-97 school year. About one-third will stay the entire year; most will return to their regular schools after 20-day or six-week stays.
"Just three or four weeks ago we were right at 70 (students)," Mrs. Bradley said. "That's an increase in just three weeks of close to 35."
Tribunals are hearings for students charged with disobeying any of the 33 rules governing student behavior; decisions and punishments can be overturned on appeal by the 10-member school board.
"It's almost like a court case," Maj. Farrell said.
The student is given a detailed letter explaining why he is being charged and given the chance to call witnesses at his hearing to refute the charges. A school police sergeant acts as a prosecutor and presents the school's case. The committee is made up of a rotating schedule of principals, teachers and administrators.
The increase in cases means more teachers and principals are being pulled away from their schools. School trustees raised such a complaint during the summer and briefly considered ways to change the tribunal system; trustees have not brought the issue back for more discussion since, though.
Total violations handled by school public safety department:
Source: Public safety records
1996-97 violations of student school rules, as of Nov. 15:
Source: Richmond County school tribunal case reports