2017-06-15 / Front Page

Behavior Crises at Local Schools

By Brooke Constance White

During Tuesday night’s Newport School Committee meeting, a group of frustrated teachers spoke to a standing-room only crowd about the behavioral issues that have escalated throughout the district this year, likely stemming from what some believe are students’ social, emotional and psychological needs that are not being met. The six teachers who shared their concerns and talked about specific incidents implored committee members to not cut any areas of the district’s proposed budget that include supports and programs to help in these areas and asked that the issues be addressed in a comprehensive manner.

Jennifer Hole, a Pell Elementary school teacher and vice president of the Teacher’s Association of Newport said many of the students in the district have emotional, psychological and social needs that teachers and school staff are not able to meet.

“To put it bluntly, some of the behavior is dangerous, threatening and frightening,” she said.

“There’s been offensive, vulgar language shouted at peers and teachers, children have been carried out of the classrooms kicking and screaming, students physically fighting with one another, teachers and staff being verbally and physically assaulted, punched, kicked and had objects thrown at them.”

She went on to say that while the district does not have the necessary staff and support systems to deal with the issues, she’s grateful that they have a superintendent who is requesting additional resources in the upcoming budget.

Melissa Turner, a Thompson Middle School teacher, said that during this current school year there have been 300 dean referrals at Thompson and 900 at Rogers, along with 40 total official incidents reported at Pell. She went on to say that the culture and climate in the schools must change.

“We need to have meaningful consequences to this behavior,” she said. “There needs to be sup- port services for students struggling emotionally and psychologically. Installing cameras in all schools would help in assisting deans trying to monitor stairwells because we cannot have eyes and ears everywhere. Please support the ideal budge. We need tools in place to give our students the support systems and interventions they need.”

Another longtime Thompson teacher, Matthew Boyle, went into great detail about the incidents he’s seen at the schools. He said that in one instance, a female teacher was punched in the nose. Other times, incidents have involved students urinating in sinks, wiping feces on bathroom walls, setting off stink bombs and so on.

“I must strongly stress that the problems facing Rogers are not because of the dean, faculty or administration. The current state of affairs is nearing crisis level,” he said. “Personally, I have had a rock thrown at me while I was leaving a building and have been the recipient of harassing statements. An Instagram account was taken out in my name, mocking me, and required Newport Police to intervene. We have entered a new era and need help from law enforcement. We need to help students to navigate social media. We need support for students with gender issues. We need cameras.”

Another Pell teacher, Aaron Sherman, said that there’s a small percentage of kids who receive a large percentage of the teachers' attention and time. He said that this year alone he’s seen scissors thrown, students and staff being hit, students self-cutting, swearing and screaming.

“We are not equipped to handle these kids, especially when we don’t have the parents backing us at home,” he said. “We are such a creative district and we are so smart. I think we need to explore creative options for discipline. We need restorative justice: if you want to write on the wall, than you paint the wall. You hurt someone in the real world, the police get involved. We need to protect the other kids.”

After the public comment portion was over, Chairman David Hanos assured the 60 attendees that they would not turn a blind eye to this.

“We care about you. We care about the kids. There’s not one of us who doesn’t care,” he said. “You can say anything here with no repercussions. We need to make this better.”

Committee member Dr. Sandra Flowers agreed with Hanos, saying she truly cares what her fellow educators are going through.

“It’s not just the students I’m concerned about, I’m also concerned about the teachers who are having to endure these horrific things you’re telling us about tonight,” she said. “Perhaps there can be more discussion about this at a special meeting. I just want you to know, I hear what you’re saying and I empathize.” In other news: c The committee unanimously approved a school lunch debt policy to help the district deal with the issue while avoiding the “lunch shaming” that other schools throughout the country have dealt with. Health and Wellness Subcommittee Chairman Rebecca Bolan said that now, by policy, if a student has a lunch debt, they will receive the same lunch as everyone else. The district is also hiring a meal advocate to act as a liaison between parents and the school to determine why some students are racking up school lunch debt. c Supt. Colleen Jermain reported to the committee that she’s been working with some of the neighbors around the Pell Elementary School playground to figure out a way to post summer hours/ rules and how the rules can be enforced. c Jermain said that the district has been working with City Manager Joe Nicholson and Finance Director Laura Sitrin to find ways to expand collaborative services and save money. The city’s finance department has agreed to take on the schools’ clerical processes in order to save the district more than $240,000. Nicholson and Sitrin have also proposed making a one-time $600,000 expenditure for technology in the schools, while taking the burden off the schools.

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