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Huntsville City Schools ill-prepared to change student discipline policy, local pastor says

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Huntsville City Schools changed its code of conduct in the last school year as part of an effort to reduce the number of student discipline incidents.

That goal is part of a consent decree between the school system and the U.S. Justice Department aimed at ending a decades-old desegregation order and is being overseen by a federal judge.

But the 2015-16 school year actually saw discipline rates for black students increase over the prior year.

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The Rev. Oscar Montgomery, pastor of Union Hill Primitive Baptist Church in Huntsville, is a member of the North Huntsville Civic Association. The group has scrutinized the consent decree and has been critical at times over the school system’s approach.

Montgomery said he’s not surprised that the discipline rates actually rose last year. The redrawing of school zone lines led to some Huntsville schools seeing a significant increase in the number of black students at predominantly white schools.

Some of those schools were not welcoming, he said, and students could tell when they weren’t welcome. He said the system didn’t do enough to prepare teachers and administrators.

Montgomery said those problems were compounded by the fact that some students were not ready for a more challenging academic environment.

“You have to be fair here, and say that, again, ‘If I’m unprepared then I have a choice, to be called dumb or to be called bad, and I choose bad over dumb, any day and so out of my frustrations I act out my anger. I present myself in such a way as to escape detection of my lack of preparation,’” Montgomery said.

He said the school system also didn’t do a good job involving teachers in the development of the code of conduct.

“We did not have enough input from the ground up, there was not enough teacher input into the development, it was more of a top-down, then a bottom-up process,” Montgomery said. “Who can better tell you how to manage and improve this than those that are actually in the classroom dealing with it every day?”

Improving the student discipline process will take time, he said. Huntsville City Schools has adopted a new behavioral learning guide and school officials have said teachers and principals were central in its development.

But Montgomery said even with a new code of conduct, some of the struggles students face in the classroom stem from problems years in the making.

“Many of them are coming from homes where there’s only one parent, and many are third-generation, children having children,” he said. “And many of them are, they defy authority. They resent authority. So you’ve got all of this that’s coalescing, so we don’t want to be misguided into thinking the solution resides in the training of the teachers, alone.”

Montgomery said every child can learn, but the role of parents will be vital in helping students get the necessary education.

“Until we reach those parents, and really engage them and equip them and empower them to effect the change, we’re still going to have a real uphill battle,” he said.

Montgomery believes more classroom resources are needed to help students who are under-performing, improve. And he said Huntsville’s leaders need to recognize students performing poorly in school affects the entire community. So, it’s the whole community’s responsibility to turn that around, he said .

“We’ve got to want for every child, what we want for our children.”