Is discipline a big issue in JC schools?

School district says clear trends don’t emerge from data

The Jefferson City Board of Education recently was given a packet of information containing discipline statistics in the district, but because administrators have changed the way infractions are handled and reported over the past seven years, discerning clear trends from the data is difficult.

Until about the 2009-10 school year, most of the district’s 11 elementary schools only reported the serious infractions that led to in-school and out-of-school suspensions. After that year, the elementaries started mixing in other, more-minor events — such as bus misconduct or disruptive speech, said Dawn Berhorst, assistant superintendent.

She surmised that change caused the “number of events” to look as if they increased precipitously, although they may have not. For example, infractions at Lawson Elementary School rose from 16 in 2009-10 to 279 in 2010-11. However, from that point, the number of infractions continued to tick upward to 355, 445 and 456 in subsequent years.

Berhorst said that might be due to the fact the “positive behavioral support” program the schools have implemented requires more incident reports.

At the high school level, a quick glance at the data shows that “discipline counts” rose steadily from 8,041 events in 2007-08 to 11,658 in 2010-11, but then proceeded to fall dramatically to 1,201 events last school year.

But that’s hardly the whole picture.

A new procedure for dealing with tardy students was implemented during the 2011-12 school year at JCHS, Berhorst said. Also, the reporting of events coded as “tardy” changed in 2012-13.

“A student had to reach a certain number of ‘tardy’ events to have that information entered into Infinite Campus,” Berhorst explained.

Administrators at the high school quit reporting every tardy to Infinite Campus — an online student information system — which can explain the dramatic drop in discipline referrals, Berhorst said.

“At least in part,” she added.

Even with all the information about tardies taken out of the equation, the number of infractions still dropped significantly: from 3,722 five years ago to 1,167 last year.

Still, some of the events that did occur last year are likely to be perceived as serious in the community.

At the high school last year, reports of two arson, eight assaults, eight thefts, 13 sexual misconduct or harassment incidents and 10 weapons infractions were turned into the central office.

Berhorst said the district would like to work on a more-specific definition of “arson,” to prevent alarming the community. She said the incidents were likely to be relatively minor, such as dropping a lit candle in a trash receptacle that didn’t result in a fire.

Alcohol was reported once. Drugs were reported 20 times, and tobacco was reported 30 times.

Nineteen instances of fighting and two instances of physical contact/aggression were reported. The main difference between an assault and a fight is that an “assault” is a fight that is one-sided and “fighting” involves two or more active participants, Berhorst explained.

The largest category was “truancy” — with 313 recorded episodes — followed by “disruptive conduct or speech” with 294 episodes and “disrespect to staff” with 207 episodes.

Comparison data from previous years was not included in the packet to board members, although overall discipline counts by school was included.

Some of the findings of the report:

• Between kindergarten and eighth grade, disruptive speech or conduct was the largest category with 1,782 infractions. Bus misconduct was also significant with 1,360 events.

• Lewis and Clark Middle School had nearly twice as many incidents of “disruptive conduct or speech” than Thomas Jefferson Middle School did.

• Weapons were reported at LCMS three times and at TJMS seven times.

• The elementary schools were not without serious events of their own. District administrators reported 13 instances of assault, about evenly split between West and North Elementary schools. One arson incident was reported at Thorpe Gordon Elementary School.

• There were quite a few fights — 127 — reported from nearly all of the elementary buildings, with especially high counts at East Elementary (57 incidents) and Thorpe Gordon (20 incidents).

• Tardies were mainly a problem for the upper grades and weren’t reported at all in the lower grades.

Dealing out discipline

At recent community meetings, speakers — mainly parents and retired teachers — have raised concerns about problems with discipline in the schools.

A commonly heard complaint is that teachers send students to the office, but soon find them bounced back to the classroom.

Anne Hutton, a former Jefferson City High School science teacher, said that happened in her department one day when a student used a syringe in inject acid into a cup of coffee. The student was sent to the office but soon returned.

“Lab is serious business,” she said. “We have to have some standards, or we can’t have labs. Punishment is the natural consequence for inappropriate behavior; it lets them know what they are doing doesn’t work. It’s a kind thing to do, because it’s better to experience consequences in high school than to lose a job later.”

Because of inconsistencies across the district in how discipline is meted out and incidents are recorded, a new committee — the “Discipline Task Force” — will begin meeting in September.

The group will include representation from principals, central office administrators, counselors, teachers and parents.

No anticipated completion date for a report has been set yet; however, it’s possible the group will continue to meet on an ongoing basis.

Some teachers believe last year was particularly terrible.

“This year was the worst, as far as violence in my classroom, I’ve ever seen in 21 years of teaching,” said Becky Comley, a recently retired music teacher from Moreau Heights Elementary.

“And when I say violence, I mean throwing things, children who hit, children who kick, kicking/biting adults, verbal, cussing,” Comley said. “A teacher … was strangled with her scarf around her neck by a second-grader.”

Comley said she’s experienced bruises and knows other teachers have, as well.

Comley said her building “went through” about three different plans for addressing unsafe behavior. Eventually, Comley said teachers were just asked to cope.

“We were supposed to try and take care of this in our classrooms, because if we didn’t, we would ‘lose credibility with the children.’ And so, if we’re trying to solve the problem in our classroom, all the other learning stops,” she said.

Comley said teachers at Moreau Heights have to let students scream for 10 minutes before they can call for help.

The dysfunction, she said, is affecting the learning environment for other students.

She said: “And, I’m seeing stresses in those little ones … the ones who are having to be subjected to this day in and day out. One little boy — I tried to keep kids away from the others who are threatening — said, ‘I’m going to kill you.’ He said that to a well-behaved child.”

Comley didn’t hear it first hand; instead she heard about it from the boy’s mother, who said her son was crying at home and didn’t want to go to school.

Addressing disruptive behavior

Last year, Comley found it increasingly difficult to keep students on task.

“Before, my menu of strategies to work with kids who aren’t focused has worked,” she said. “All I have to do is take out the instrument and everybody wants to play. … Now that doesn’t help.”

Instead, she sees students running over and grabbing what they want — even throwing the instruments.

“In K-2, I’m seeing the stresses of the other kids in the class,” she said. “The kids who are normally well-behaved are getting stressed out.”

Comley feels some of the behavior problems that formerly affected other regions of the U.S. have arrived in Jefferson City.

“And, because I believe in public education, I believe we need to solve this and help these kids. But also at this time, I understand the people who pulling their kids out of public school. I understand it. Because I would not want my children to be where they were not safe,” she said.

Comley said she bumped into the father of a younger teacher in the district who lamented his daughter was experiencing significant levels of distress.

“These young teachers are just so stressed,” Comley added.

In recent weeks, Superintendent Brian Mitchell has talked about a new transitional classroom for disruptive elementary-age students the district implemented at the Miller Performing Arts Center this fall.

Mitchell described it as a place for behaviorally challenged students to relearn the appropriate classroom behaviors they need to be successful in their regular classrooms. With five specially trained teachers and paraprofessionals to staff the new transitional classroom, the space is intended to serve students “in need of the most significant support on the behavior continuum.”

Mitchell said the idea isn’t to punish students by sending them to the new classroom. Instead, staff want to help difficult students who haven’t yet been taught appropriate ways to express their emotions. He said there’s a difference between the emotional and behavioral issues that a young child might exhibit — behaviors that are learned and can be unlearned, he feels — and the discipline a teenager needs to be less defiant and more compliant at school.

He said a child will only be moved to the transitional classroom after a team of educators decides it’s the right thing to do. Also, only students who exhibit numerous incidents of acting out will be considered as candidates. The program is meant for students whose behaviors are so challenging and stressful that they disrupt their whole buildings, not just their classrooms.

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