Disciplinary issues went unreported

Almost overnight, Murphey Middle School went from being labeled one of the most dangerous schools in Georgia to barely having a discipline problem.

That turnaround was a mere illusion, according to a two-year investigation released Tuesday to The Augusta Chronicle .

The report showed that about 2,000 discipline incidents were not initially reported during the 2005-06 school year, the same year Murphey was trying to get off the state's "persistently dangerous" list that it shared with two other schools.

Murphey was removed from the list the following year when school data showed that discipline had dramatically improved.

After being questioned by a reporter about the findings, some Richmond County school board members said this is the latest example of putting inexperienced educators in the wrong positions and not giving them proper training.

The discipline referrals were placed in student files and collected on Assistant Principal Douglas Jackson's desk because he hadn't been trained on how to electronically report them and didn't have time for paperwork, the report said. At the time, he had been given the job to administer discipline by Principal Tonethia Beasley, who was on maternity leave and was later transferred to Collins Elementary.

Her absence left an inexperienced assistant principal and a substitute principal running Murphey, which was in the midst of converting to a charter school.

What resulted was "sloppy" record-keeping, board member Helen Minchew said.

For instance, some incidents, such as cheering on a fight, were recorded as fights. Some actual fights were not recorded as such.

The investigation found 25 of the 2,000 discipline incidents warranted a tribunal hearing, but it didn't find evidence that Mr. Jackson intentionally tried to "hide" reports. Mr. Jackson "made it very clear that (Ms. Beasley) never issued a directive for him not to send any cases to tribunal."

Mr. Jackson said Tuesday that he had to choose between managing the school or doing paperwork and he chose the former.

He was unable to enter discipline referrals into the county's computer system and had to wait until Ms. Beasley returned in January 2006, according to the report.

The Chronicle reported Feb. 19, 2006, that Murphey had sent no students to tribunals to be disciplined. Two weeks later, according to the investigation, the school began reporting discipline incidents.

"Ms. Beasley agreed that it did look suspicious that the entry of reports for Murphey increased after the newspaper article was published," the report said.

A month later, former Superintendent Charles Larke publicly acknowledged the investigation, citing "clerical errors."

"Ms. Beasley stated that the timing was truly just a coincidence," the report said.

In the investigative report, Ms. Beasley also denied allegations that she was, among other things, rude to state Department of Education monitors who were sent to assist the school because it was on the needs-improvement list.

The Murphey incident was used by school board members to push Dr. Larke into retirement.

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or greg.gelpi@augustachronicle.com.

FINDINGS

The investigation also found:

- Students had suspensions reduced but the days missed were counted as unexcused absences. This should have triggered a policy that sends truant students to juvenile court, but it didn't.

- Students who were suspended multiple times should have been sent to tribunal as "chronic disciplinary problems," but they weren't. They didn't receive the appropriate interventions as a result.