After 12 hours of public hearings in six cities this week, the top issue is student behavior, state Superintendent of Education John White said Friday.

White made the comment during a two-hour hearing at McKinley Middle Magnet School on how the state should change its public school policies to comply with a new federal law called the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

The issue of student behavior, including classroom violence, came up several times in a gathering of more than 100 parents and school officials, including several local superintendents and two members of the state's top school board — Jada Lewis and Kathy Edmonston.

White said student violence is not on the rise either in Louisiana or nationally, though it is the topic he hears raised the most.

He said disruptive students are often those that need to be in classrooms the most, and that sending them home "is not helpful to them or society."

"I am hearing a lot about how do we approach issues on student behavior, including aggressive behavior," White said after the meeting.

"It is a concern from the perspective of people who feel like there needs to be a more strict approach, and a concern from the perspective of those who feel like being strict has led to a lot of adverse consequences of children in need of support," he said.

The issue has spilled into the Legislature too, including controversial bills to restrict student suspensions. In addition, surveys often show that school violence is a top concern of teachers. A state task force is also studying the issue.

Any of those recommendations may end up in the state's plan for how to comply with the 2015 federal law, which took the place of No Child Left Behind.

Gretchen Lampe, an official of the Louisiana Association of Educators for East Baton Rouge Parish, said she thinks institutional racism is part of the problem.

"We've got a problem and nobody wants to talk about it," Lampe told the group during one of the periods of public comment.

Lampe, who is white, said white teachers are routinely sent into classrooms where they "don't know how to have conversations and understand other cultures."

Others in the audience blamed racism for a variety of problems in public schools, including why black students are tested less than whites for possible inclusion in gifted and talented programs.

LAE President Debbie Meaux repeated her concerns about the value of letter grades on public schools, which she called labels with little meaning. "It  doesn't tell me anything about the school," Meaux said.

White disagreed.

"I am a staunch advocate of putting a grade on a school," he said.

White said the state may need to revamp the way school letter grades are calculated.

The state Department of Education plans three more hearings on the new federal law next week in Houma, Mandeville and New Orleans.

Hearings are also planned before at least  half a dozen education groups before the state submits its plans to the U. S. Department of Education next year.

Changes will take effect for the 2017-18 school year.


Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.