Originally created 09/13/03

Records uncover violated policies



Last month's failure of a middle school principal to properly report a bus attack was not the first time Richmond County school leaders have left the central office in the dark.

In April, Joe Zabriskie, then-principal of Butler High School, was reprimanded for not informing the Board of Education that two students had made a hit list of fellow students, teachers and others, and another had nude photographs of a female classmate, according to documents obtained by The Augusta Chronicle after an open records request.

Those incidents occurred last spring and were never publicized. Mr. Zabriskie resigned over the summer.

In August, officials say, Sego Middle School Principal Ronald Wiggins violated school board policy by not providing details of a bus attack to the central office or the Public Safety Department.

The 15-year-old pupil who started the fight Aug. 14 broke two fingers while attacking a younger classmate, school officials said.

The boy simply returned to school the following Monday with bandages around his hand.

Administrators found out about the attack when a reporter inquired about it a week later. District spokeswoman Mechelle Jordan said disciplinary action against the principal is pending an investigation.

Superintendent Charles Larke said Friday the school board policy is clear. Principals are required to report crime to the central office, allowing for a tribunal hearing and possible expulsion of the pupil.

"The board has said point blank that there are certain things that must be reported and must go to tribunal," Dr. Larke said. "At Butler High School last year, they may have had three or four incidents that we may feel that it wasn't reported in a timely fashion to us."

Reporting school violence is also required by the Georgia Department of Education, which needs accurate figures to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act. Schools with too much violence are deemed "persistently dangerous," forcing them to allow pupils to transfer to safer schools.

According to documents obtained by The Chronicle under Georgia's Open Records laws, Mr. Zabriskie did not inform central office administrators about two students who made a hit list at Butler High School on March 5.

The hit list included names of classmates, teachers and administrators. The hand-written note contained words such as "uzi-ordered boys" and "sniper-delivered."

The students, both 15, told school police the list was a joke, but each was charged with terroristic threats by the sheriff's office.

"They had watched a movie called Higher Learning and some of them made a list on the people that they didn't like and wanted to kill," sheriff's Maj. Ken Autry said. "That's where they got the idea. One made the list and passed it to the other. The teacher caught them."

Neither the school system nor the sheriff's office made the public aware of the threats.

But Dr. Larke made it clear that the principal should have made him aware. He questioned the principal's effectiveness in leading Butler High School, reprimanding him in an April letter.

"Once you had the facts, you spoke with the parents, gave the students five days of suspension, but did not send the case to tribunal, even though the possibility that the 'hit list' was real and presented a serious situation," Dr. Larke wrote.

The school district requires that principals send terroristic threat cases to a tribunal panel, where a formal hearing is held to determine the appropriate disposition of each case, Dr. Larke said. Principals run the risk of allowing other pupils to be harmed if they do not take the threats seriously, he said.

Mr. Zabriskie resigned July 1, citing health reasons. Contacted at home, he would not discuss the Butler case.

It was not the only infraction for Mr. Zabriskie. He was disciplined in the spring for not reporting a male student who was carrying two inappropriate photographs. The first was a nude photograph of a female student and another showed her kissing another girl.

Mr. Zabriskie talked to the girl's parents, but Dr. Larke said the principal had the duty to report suspected child abuse to the Richmond County Department of Family and Children Services.

After the infractions, principals were reminded to report all incidents in which they are requesting long-term suspension, expulsion or alternative placement. This includes disciplinary problems involving drugs, weapons, alcohol, vandalism and fights with injuries.

Recently, the policy was changed to require that all incidents that may warrant a tribunal hearing be sent to Dr. Larke or Deputy Superintendent Gene Sullivan.

THE RULES

According to the School Tribunal Act and the Student Code of Conduct, incidents in which the principal is requesting long-term suspension, expulsion or alternative placement must be referred to tribunal for due process.

SCHOOL SAFETY

If your child is the victim of a crime, there are several recommended steps to take:

  • Make sure the school's administrators are aware of the situation. Nearly all incidents can be handled by the school.
  • If you are not satisfied with the school's treatment of the situation, call the superintendent's office.
  • Call the sheriff's office, especially if the situation could involve illegal activities. If the law has been broken, the schools are supposed to contact law enforcement.
  • IMPORTANT PHONE NUMBERS:

  • Richmond County Board of Education: (706) 737-7200
  • Richmond County Sheriff's Office: (706) 821-1000
  • Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 828-3851 or greg.rickabaugh@augustachronicle.com.