Originally created 04/08/01

Changes to pupil discipline program aim to restore its reputation



KINGSLAND, Ga. - The rules are simple for Command Sgt. Maj. Dicty L. Missouri's pupils.

No back talk. Address instructors as sir or ma'am.

Complete all homework assignments on time. Attendance is mandatory.

But children in Command Sgt. Maj. Missouri's classroom aren't model pupils. In fact, his job with the Student Transition and Recovery program, also known as STAR, is to take pupils with behavior problems in school and fix them.

"From the time their feet hit the ground, it's a different world," the command sergeant major said. "This is the next-best thing to being in the military."

Another challenge facing the sergeant, soon-to-be retired from the Army, and his staff is to restore confidence in STAR. The boot camp-style discipline program was shut down in December after a youth was hospitalized while undergoing rigorous physical training.

The injured boy, 11, was sprayed with water throughout the day while crawling through wet sand, according to the youth's grandmother, while a drill sergeant asked, "Who's going to help you now?"

Assistant Superintendent Edwin Davis said the program's previous success in reducing behavior problems in the classroom was a key reason for trying to salvage STAR.

"We thought it had merit for students who were not responding to traditional discipline," Mr. Davis said.

In the months since the boy was injured, Camden County school officials have revamped the program and created safeguards that include having a school employee present whenever physical activities are conducted. A school nurse is called anytime a pupil complains about an illness or physical ailment.

The program - which costs the school system $110,000 a year - will be evaluated at the end of the school year to decide on any more changes or, if necessary, to cancel the program.

"We want the program to fit our philosophy," Mr. Davis said.

STAR, which began in Texas in 1993, is offered in 30 school systems nationwide, including 20 school districts in Georgia.

"With the exception of Camden County, we never had an accusation of injury to a student," said Charles Stancil, the president of the San Antonio-based company. "What happened was an isolated incident that should have never happened."

Parents must voluntarily enroll their children in the program, which typically lasts one day. The pupils are led through physical training the entire day, beginning at 5:30 a.m. The day ends at 6 p.m.

Some children are re-enrolled after a second incident for another one-day intervention.

The third time, a child must serve a 30-day term in the program, where they exercise and perform military-style marching drills, then shower and eat breakfast before attending classes.

After classes end, pupils return to a study hall where they do their homework. A teacher acts as a tutor for any pupil who has problems with an assignment.

Discipline problems at the county's two middle schools have dropped since the program started at the beginning of the 1999-2000 school year, Mr. Davis said.

The number of out-of-school suspensions was 568 during the 1998 school year and dropped to 396 last year, according to statistics provided by the Camden County Board of Education.

The number of in-school suspensions was also lowered from 1,599 in 1998 to 1,161 last year.

Mr. Davis attributed the lower numbers to the STAR program.

The program isn't designed to be easy, Command Sgt. Maj. Missouri said.

"I want this to be an unpleasant experience," said the 30-year Army veteran.

A mother whose son is involved in the program says it's tough on parents, too.

"I get up at 4 a.m. to get my son there," said a single mother, who cannot be named to protect her son's identity. "It's not easy, but it's worth it if it makes a difference to him."