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September 17, 2013

Big 10: Mountain Creek Academy celebrates zero suspensions, new policies

Principal wants to disprove labels given to students, school

CHATSWORTH — “Boom.”

Writing that word in a Bagley Middle School bathroom sent then sixth-grader Corey Tilson to Murray County Schools’ Mountain Creek Academy, a school for middle and high school students who have faced disciplinary action.

So it’s a big accomplishment, said Tilson, now a 16-year-old senior, when the school goes 10 days with zero reported suspensions or referrals. The school celebrated its 10 days Monday afternoon. Within the first 10 days of school last year, there were about 45 suspensions or referrals, officials said.

Most of the students are there because “they did something stupid,” Tilson said, adding that his own actions as a pre-teen fall into that category. Ultimately being transferred to Mountain Creek “is for the best” for most, he added.

Tilson stayed at Mountain Creek even after he would have been allowed back to a regular school because of the one-on-one teaching style it offers. In that time he says he’s seen the place go from “basically prison” to “a real alternative school.”

“The place has gotten better,” Tilson said.

That’s because Mountain Creek staff have spent the last two years trying to change the school’s focus by making changes and adding new policies, Principal Marcus Richardson said.

A safer school?

Richardson said he’s “excited” for the new policies he credits for the reduction in the number of suspensions and referrals (when a student is moved from the student’s “home school” to Mountain Creek for a period of time).

One of those changes is using hand-held metal detectors — or wands — to search students for weapons, a policy put in place after Richardson said a Mountain Creek student was arrested after he took a sawed-off shotgun to Bagley Middle School on Sept. 11 of last year.

Richardson said the student, who was expelled from Murray County Schools after a school tribunal, had been at Mountain Creek two days after moving to Chatsworth from North Carolina. No one was hurt and the shotgun was never fired, school and law enforcement officials said.

But it was a close call, school officials said, so implementing a search-at-the-door policy was important.

“It does affect us,” Richardson said. “But what have we done? We now search our students. We take their shoes off and their personal electronic devices go into a locker while they are here. At first, students were upset. But when they realize it is for their safety they became OK with it. Now it’s just part of the day.”

A survey last year provided by Richardson said 78 percent of the approximately 65 students at the school felt safe. This year, 92 percent of students said they feel safe.

Tilson is one of those students.

“There’s been less fights, less students sneaking in drugs, less — well — anything negative,” he said. “It’s better.”

Ashley King, a senior one class shy of graduating a year-and-a-half earlier than her peers, agrees. King said she came to Mountain Creek both in seventh and 10th grade for drug use, opting to stay for an early graduation in a place that lets her “work at her own pace.”

Now, King said, she’s been avoiding bad influences and is on her way to starting tech school and getting a forensics nursing degree. She will always remember Mountain Creek as “a great place,” she said.

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