On the first day of school this fall at Liberty Hill Academy, a 14-year-old boy told an assistant principal that he'd like to see the administrator out on the street so he could bust his head, according to a North Charleston police report.
The threat could have been seen as a bad omen, a sign of yet another difficult year at Charleston County's alternative school for at-risk middle-schoolers. Liberty Hill has come under scrutiny since a handful of ex-teachers described its environment as lawless, dangerous and demoralizing.
But current teachers, counselors and administrators at Liberty Hill say the tide is turning.
Principal Chris Haynes said he and his team have brought a renewed focus on the roots of bad behavior this school year, with some extra training and support to back it up. The school also has added a new staff member, a behavior interventionist.
Teachers are getting 28 days of professional development this year, far more than at the district's other schools. They learn about childhood trauma from mental health counselors, work out plans for the "restorative circles" where students open up about their emotions, and practice using the school's computerized learning system.
Last school year, teachers were frustrated when their discipline referrals piled up in a backlog and Haynes deleted 159 referrals without action. This summer, Haynes met with them to get input on what should be deemed a "major" referral and what could wait for a day or longer.
"Our teachers believe in the system more this year," he said.
One 19-year teaching veteran, Sandra Lemen, was fired last school year and said this summer that the school had "destroyed" her after a year-and-a-half. Another teacher said she was experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. In a hearing appealing her termination, Lemen described being left alone with aggressive students, who would curse her out and stand in the way if she tried to press the button on her classroom wall to call for help.
On the first day of this school year, the 14-year-old student had several staff members and administrators surrounding him by the time the police arrived, according to the incident report. The assistant principal declined to press charges because he didn't find the threat credible.
The student "completed a Reflective form in accordance with school policy and was returned to the original classroom with no further issues," according to the officer's report.
Entirely about behavior
A squat brick building behind black gates in North Charleston, Liberty Hill Academy houses two separate programs under one roof.
One side serves special-needs students in kindergarten through eighth grade, while the other side serves as a last-chance reform school for middle-schoolers who get referred there for serious behavior problems. It's the latter program, added to the school in 2016, that has drawn most complaints from teachers.
Liberty Hill has a few features that other middle schools don't have. Every day, students must pass through metal detectors, taking off their shoes for inspection, and allowing a staff member to search their pockets for weapons and contraband.
On a recent Wednesday morning, a lanky middle school boy passed through the checkpoint calmly and then walked to class rapping about basketball and Adderall. A girl blew up in a staff member's face, called her a sexual slur and then cursed loudly enough for everyone in the hallway to hear.
Students with serious behavior issues can be taken to meet with administrators in a "de-escalation room" near the center of the building, which features blank walls, a rubberized floor, three doorless closets and a pair of desks. In the halls, staff members have laid down tape in figure-eights, which students can trace with their steps to calm down.
The alternative-school model is not unique to Charleston County. A 2008 survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics found more than 10,300 school districts across the country had some sort of alternative school or program for "at-risk" students, who are referred to those programs for academic or behavioral issues. Alternative programs were near-universal in large and urban districts, including 96 percent of districts with 10,000 students or more.
But unlike other schools that have successfully sent most of their students back to their regular schools without repeat problems, Liberty Hill is still refining its plan.
North Charleston police filed 29 incident reports at Liberty Hill in the first two months of this school year, with 11 incidents ending in arrests.
Subtracting a week of hurricane days, that brought the rate to one report every one-and-a-half school days. Those incident reports included nine assaults, seven instances of property damage or vandalism, and four threats.
At a school where some students are referred in lieu of expulsion, and others have severe emotional disorders, "inappropriate behavior is going to occur," said Executive Director of Alternative Programs Jennifer Coker. In certain cases, including assaults and threats, the school is required by law to notify police.
"We work with children, not cars. There is no quick fix," Coker said. "We must teach them positive coping skill and strategies that replace the negative ones. Changing behavior is difficult."
"Think of it as the same as losing weight, quitting smoking, or overcoming drug addiction," she added. "Many times progress is made and then a relapse occurs. We cannot stop trying to help students just because they relapse."
The biggest change students have noticed this year is a new point system that determines when they are ready for "restoration," a return to their regular schools. Previous systems factored in everything from attendance to behavior to academic achievements. This year, it's a 5,000-point goal, and it's entirely about behavior.
"We found the grades inflated the behavior score," Haynes said. Students can earn 500 points for participating in a service learning project; they can go back to zero for serious offenses. Smaller point values can be added for wearing ID badges, cooperating during the morning checkpoint, and staying on task in class.
The morning of Oct. 17, students in all middle school grades spent the bulk of their time in restorative circles, talking through their emotions and sharing occasional moments of vulnerability. This is a key part of the Restorative Practices program that the district has been piloting at Liberty Hill and four other schools.
In a seventh-grade classroom, the students dragged their desks into a circle, screeching across the floor. Some gave terse answers to the questions posed by teacher Natasha Gilliard-Anderson. One sat the exercise out entirely, doodling in a notepad.
They really got talking once Gilliard-Anderson asked how they imagine they'll feel on the day they are sent back to their home schools.
"I would feel good because I'm leaving out this bitch," one student said, eliciting a few laughs.
"I'd be happy," one girl said, "because I've been here for like —"
"A year and a half," another student offered.
"No," the girl said. "For years."
'Believing people can change'
October is when Charleston County's middle schools often start referring their toughest discipline cases to Liberty Hill, and the school is bracing for an influx of students that could double its population in the next two months.
Eighth-grade English teacher Beth Vierling is not worried. She said she took a job at Liberty Hill this fall because she was drawn to its students.
"It's very much what I expected," said Vierling, who previously worked in high-poverty schools in Virginia. "There are days when I say, 'Did I get to teach at all?'"
But unlike previous years' teachers at Liberty Hill, Vierling said she always knows the administration has her back.
"I feel like I'm supported. We do have moments that are out of control, but I've never had a situation where I press the button and no one responded," Vierling said.
Now in her 17th year working at Liberty Hill, guidance counselor Robin Woods has seen it all — and she was still irrepressibly giddy as she led the staff in a morning pep rally before students arrived Oct. 17. She got them dancing, had them put their hands in the middle of a circle, and left them with a word of wisdom: "Shift happens."
What's her secret?
"It's the idea of believing people can change," Woods said. "I just want to stay here for that change."