05/17/07 — Hearing officer helps students, families find way

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Hearing officer helps students, families find way

By Bonnie Edwards
Published in News on May 17, 2007 1:48 PM

Allison Pridgen knows that schools have to do more than just provide instruction for many students.

Mrs. Pridgen is hearing officer and director of student support services for the Wayne County schools. She says many of the students she is called upon to help have problems that go beyond the classroom.

Chief among them are problems at home, she said. Some come from homes where drugs or alcohol are an issue, she said. A parent out of work or facing financial problems also can affect a child's performance at school. Students with little or no direction in their lives can wind up in trouble, either with school officials or with law enforcement officials, she noted.

"It can be likened to that swirl in the kitchen sink, pulling you down, down, down .... Somebody has to step in, but one person alone can't make enough difference. It has to be a team," Mrs. Pridgen said. "I talk to four or five juvenile court counselors a day."

She said she tries to establish a rapport with students and their parents. Understanding the family dynamic is important to getting to the source of the problem, she said.

"They know I'm not the enemy. They know I'm here to help," she said.

Mrs. Pridgen said cultural shifts have affected the atmosphere both on campus and off.

"These changes come to our schools every day, and on occasion, children make bad decisions. Adults make bad decisions, and there are always consequences for your actions," she said. "These things can have a profound effect on a child's academics and decision-making ability."

There are 17 reportable offenses spelled out by state law for which school officials are required to contact a law enforcement agency. The most common is carrying a knife to school. In some cases, the offense is accidental, such as a boy who carried a pocketknife to a weekend campout and forgot to remove it from his backpack on Monday morning. Others are more serious. But the law is the same, and officers have to be called.

Suspensions are more common today than in the past, she noted. With the fear of violence greater than ever at many schools, authorities have become more serious about punishment.

But parents who feel their child has not been given a fair shake by the school system have the right to ask for a meeting with Mrs. Pridgen. She said that in some cases the suspension can be reconsidered.

After 10 years in her present job and more than 25 in the school system, Mrs. Pridgen has come to realize the limits of what teachers, counselors and principals can do to help a student. But that doesn't stop them from trying, every day, to help a student find the right path. She said her job, although difficult at times, can be extremely rewarding.

"My best day's work is when I've done something good for a kid. I think I'm where I'm intended to be."