By Travis Mounts
CLEARWATER – Roughly 50 people were in attendance last Thursday night at a community meeting to address concerns about discipline procedures at Clearwater Elementary West.
Laurien Taton is a mother and teacher in another school district who has two students attending Elementary West.
“We are concerned about behaviors we are seeing at Elementary West,” she said. “What I see at Elementary West is not normal.”
She said she was not after anybody’s job, and was not looking to see students removed from the school She said she wanted to bring awareness to the situation.
Specific incidents were not brought up at the meeting, but it was stated at the meeting that there were violent behaviors and attacks on staff.
“That’s not normal and that’s not OK,” one parent said.
Taton said the district does not have a structured discipline plan, and she said she was told that the district had never needed one before.
One parent in attendance said that what have been mild to moderate issues seem to have escalated this year. Several parents expressed the opinion that the district is putting other priorities, such as test scores, ahead of discipline.
Superintendent Chris Cooper visited with TSnews. He acknowledged that the district saw a spike in behavior issues last fall. He said that the district has taken numerous steps to address the problems, and that the situation has improved significantly.
Cooper said that Clearwater schools do not have a disciplinary plan that says if “action X” occurs, the “action Y” takes place as a consequence.
“That’s pretty typical. Every situation is different,” he said, noting that schools have moved away from zero-tolerance policies that districts found to be ineffective.
There are behavior expectations included in the student handbook, which is available on the district website at www.usd264.org.
Cooper said the district has added a full-time social worker to help address an increase in emotional issues. He said the district also used additional personnel as instruction coaches who worked with staff.
Former principal Diane Nickelson has been working with teachers and spending extra time with elementary staff. Cooper said the district also requested more services from the Goddard-based special education cooperative that USD 264 belongs to.
“That was a major development,” Cooper said.
More recently, he said, the district hired an outside consultant who has observed every classroom, coached staff, and made recommendations to adminstrators.
The district records office discipline referrals – known as ODRs – when students or incidents are reported to the principal’s office. That number hit 91 in November.
“That’s higher than we’re OK with,” Cooper said.
He said that with the implementation of additional resources, that number dropped to 35 in December and down to just five in January. He said that ODRs are subjective, and that district personnel are working to be more consistent in how ODRs are applied.
Cooper also noted that the district had to empty classrooms several times in the fall semester due to behavioral disruptions. He said that happened just once in the just-completed third nine weeks.
At last week’s parents’ meeting, accusations were made that district personnel had been unresponsive to meeting requests.
Cooper said that he and the district’s principals are always willing to meet with individual parents. He said that it was not accurate that the district had been inundated by parental complaints. He said that he has had four parental meetings this school year, and there have been a few with principals.
Cooper said the district declined the invitation to attend last week’s meeting.
“My belief is that it was only going to bring drama and division,” he said.
Part of the conversation focused on Elementary West’s “reset room.” Concerns were raised about how the room was being used.
The group Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) describes reset rooms as a place for students to go to where they can regulate their emotions. Reset rooms are not supposed to be punishment, and are not for children who are kicked out of a class. They are asked to visit the reset room – or ask on their own to go – to get calm and focused.
Elementary West’s reset room is new this school year, but reset rooms are common at elementary schools these days.
“It’s a place to get emotionally regulated,” Cooper said. He said there are fewer than five Elementary West students using it on a regular basis. He noted specialists from the education cooperative can come out and give advice.
Many in Thursday’s crowd were still unhappy with the responses from administrators. As many as 10 parents said they had thought about removing their children from Clearwater schools.
Taton advised parents to communicate with school board members. One audience member urged the crowd to pay attention to who is running for school board, and to be active in local elections.
Taton said she had presented a proposal for a disciplinary plan to the USD 264 Board of Education. In the end, she said, the best hope for change lies in a change of leadership. Cooper is retiring at the end of June. Jason Johnson, currently an assistant superintendent in Garden City, will take over on July 1.
Cooper said a handful of parents have visited the reset room. One parent who was skeptical before visiting, he said, asked how their student could use it after visiting it.
Cooper said the district could have communicated better about the disruptions it was seeing last fall and the steps that were being taken to address them.
A number of the behavioral issues involved students with various special needs. Schools do their best to incorporate all students into the classroom. A school cannot simply transfer a troubled student the cooperative or expel them for disruptive behavior. Furthermore, federal and state laws and privacy guidelines put significant limitations on what districts can say. For example, a district cannot release what disciplinary action was taken against an individual student.
Cooper added that schools across the country are seeing an increase in behavioral issues in the post-COVID world, especially in lower grades where students were not in class for pre-school, kindergarten or first grade – times when they learn a lot of social skills needed for the classroom and in other settings.
He also thanked staff members for their efforts in addressing behavioral issues.
“I’m super proud of the staff and the work they have done,” he said.