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SPLC to Gwinnett County’s New School Superintendent: Prioritize School Discipline Reform

GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. – Today, the Gwinnett County Board of Education voted to name Calvin J. Watts as the new superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS), Georgia’s largest and most diverse school district. He will assume the role amid calls from parents and community groups like Gwinnett SToPP to reform the district’s school disciplinary practices that disproportionately impact Black students and students with disabilities.

In recent years, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has represented several GCPS students in exclusionary discipline cases that were later reversed by the Gwinnett County Superior Court or state board of education. Following the most recent decision earlier this year, the Gwinnett County Board of Education vowed to overhaul its student code of conduct.

The following statement is from Claire Sherburne, staff attorney for the SPLC’s children’s rights practice group.

“We commend Calvin Watts on his historic appointment as the first Black superintendent of Georgia’s largest and most diverse school district. As GCPS’ former assistant superintendent for school improvement and operations, Mr. Watts should be well-aware of the pressing school climate issues facing students, particularly Black students and students with disabilities, in district. According to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement K-12 Student Discipline Dashboard, 46% of all disciplinary action taken in GCPS in 2020 involved Black students, despite that Black students made up only 32% of enrolled students in the district. By comparison, White students accounted for only 13% of the student population that received disciplinary actions in 2020, despite making up 21% of the overall student population.

“Through his role, Mr. Watts has a crucial opportunity and obligation to reverse the district’s dismal track record on school discipline. And we echo the community’s calls to make it a top priority from day one.

“We also are counting on Watts to hold the Gwinnett County school board accountable to its promise to overhaul the student code of conduct, including eliminating policies that discriminate against students of color, LGBTQ youth and students with disabilities. The students and families of Gwinnett County have waited long enough for change. They deserve access to evidence-based discipline policies and practices in which all students can thrive and succeed.

“The SPLC looks forward to working with both Watts and the school board as we  continue to monitor this issue and advocate on behalf of students who have being wrongfully pushed out of school due to punitive discipline policies and practices.”