Wednesday, March 9, 2011

BOE "Doing Everything We Can" To Stop Bullying

Much of Tuesday night's regular Board of Education meeting was dominated by the topic of bullying and the larger issue of school climate. I'll give a quick summary of the non-bullying items that were considered, and then I'll go back and cover the bullying issue.

The Board received a written report from the principals involved in the February 4th evacuations of Moody and Bielefield Elementary Schools. Moody was evacuated to Spencer and Bielefield was evacuated to Wesley. The four principals were on hand to answer questions from BOE members about the evacuations and the lessons learned. Moody Principal Yolande Eldridge commented, "We learned how well our practice pays was a tremendous learning experience for our children...they learned to be patient and flexible." Bielefield Principal Renata Lantos told the board that one of her students accidentally activated the fire alarm once everyone had arrived at Wesley School, so those 600 combined students had the additional bonus of a fire drill on top of a whole-school evacuation. BOE members praised the principals and Transportation Mike Milardo for the quick evacuations and overall handling of events.

Director of Grant Services Elizabeth Nocera was asked about two grants: a Community Development Block Grant for Hall House and then an Interdistrict Cooperative Grant for the Youth Mathematics and Technology Academy. The CDB Grant will allow for repairs to be made to Hall House to expand its usage. The Youth Mathematics and Technology Academy is a six district program that promotes academic achievement in math and reduces isolation for the students involved. It was originally developed to respond to Sheff vs. O'Neill requirements, and this year the program ran for 10 Saturdays instead of 15 due to budget cuts. BOE Member Jay Keiser questioned the effectiveness of the program given the mixed academic results from participating students, but Nocera noted that the program did seem to help with CMT results for the involved students.

Budget Committee Chair Jay Keiser spoke to the Board on the financial impact of the Local 466 Contract should it be accepted. Keiser stated that the BOE will have to find an additional $131, 336 to cover wage increases and other costs if the contract is accepted. A breakdown of these costs is available in a memo to the Common Council and Board of Education from BOE Chairman Ted Raczka dated February 28, 2011. (Click on BOE Responses to Local 466 in the "Latest News" section of the District webpage. A similar memo from Superintendent Michael Frechette is also available.)

Policy Committee Chair Sally Boske explained proposed changes to Bylaw #9235 Meeting Conduct and Policy #9325.2 Order of Business. First, the Policy Committee recommends dividing the Public Session into two separate parts of the agenda: where the public normally now has three minutes to address the BOE, this initial Public Session would be used for the public to comment on agenda items only. A second Public Session for non-agenda items would be added to the very end of the agenda (yes, you would have to sit through the whole meeting before you can speak about anything not on the agenda). Boske justified the proposed policy change by saying, "We [the BOE] really need the time to get our work on the agenda done, but we do want to make sure that the public can talk to us about whatever it needs to." The second proposed change to the Order of Business is to add a place under the Report of the Superintendent section of the agenda for school personnel to update the Board as necessary. This was previously done during the Public Session, and the Policy Committee felt this wasn't the place to address these issues.

During the Public Session, five members of Monique McClain's family spoke to the BOE about her bullying case, and six other members of the public not related to Monique spoke on her behalf (author's disclosure: I was one of those six). Monique McClain was present and so was Channel 8 News. Her Grandmother, Alexa McClain, addressed the BOE for the 4th time, listing a series of numbers to remind BOE members of how long Monique has been seeking resolution of her bullying complaints: 180 days since the first written complaint was filed, 132 days since the first verbal request, 49 days since the family asked for an at-home tutor, 41 days since a meeting with Dr. Frechette, 29 days since Alycia McClain (the mother) submitted a written request to the BOE, 49 days at home without school instruction after suffering 133 days of unchecked bullying. Alexa McClain went on to say that her granddaughter was being "psychologically abused by the apathy of the board," and that she could not believe that a tutor could be found to administer the CMT test to Monique at home, but one couldn't be found to help Monique prep for the test or even receive basic school instruction.

Both of Monique's parents spoke to the Board, as did her boxing coach, Johnny Callas (The Lion's Den) and Pastor Mike Wynn. All of the comments (from family members or members of the public at large) urged the BOE to take visible action to resolve this bullying complaint, with Monique's uncle commenting, "If not you, who else is going to help her? We know what happens to children who are bullied....We have the know-how to stop this, so who's going to do it?"

The Board of Ed doesn't respond to public comments directly, but on the agenda for the evening was a presentation from Mindy Otis, the Supervisor of Special Education. Otis handed the BOE a 24 page (double-sided) report on the District's efforts to eliminate bullying in Middletown schools. This report and other materials on bullying are available here on the District's website (click on the Bullying and Harassment link). As a background warm-up, Otis told the BOE that "Research indicates that an improvement in school climate leads to a reduction of "mean" behaviors. Since 2005 the approach to reducing and eliminating bullying has appropriately shifted from specific targeted interventions to a more comprehensive approach aimed at improving school climate." Otis also told the board that while the term "bullying" is most often used, the focus should be on "mean behaviors" instead: "We're trying to teach students how to proactively resolve conflict in a positive manner."

Calling the 2010-2011 school year the "Year of School Climate," Otis highlighted the District Data Team's efforts to improve school climate (Otis is a member of the School Climate Subcommittee). Noting that the District Climate Subcommittee has developed goals that are part of the District Improvement Plan, Otis outlined the following high priority goals that have been selected for next year:
1. Bus time. Teachers, Principals and behavior reports indicate that the time spent on the bus is problematic for mean behaviors. Currently bus report data is being entered into an electronic system and will be analyzed by May 2011.
2. Setting District wide standards for behavior that will be codified into standards based report cards. District representatives will be attending upcoming professional development on National Standards.
3. Infusing Responsive Classroom and Developmental design into daily practice and extending it to high school level (after NEASC re-accreditation).

Otis also commented on recent media coverage: "While focusing on the issue in general is beneficial as it improves awareness, excessive media coverage of individual cases can have detrimental effects on students. Further complicating matters is the (appropriate) restriction of information due to the need for confidentiality. As a result, there is an appearance to the general public that the Middletown Public Schools are not making great efforts to combat bullying." She went on to say that the vast majority of reports of mean behavior are being resolved immediately by teachers with students, and that those students often go on to be best friends and great role models for their classmates. "Some cases might require a bit more attention, but most are taken care of quickly," Otis reported.

Her concluding statement reads:

"In summary, the Middletown Schools continue their efforts to improve school climate, increase prosocial behavior and decrease antisocial behavior. We have made great growth since the December 2005 report to the BOE. The 2010-2011 was dubbed the "Year of school climate" and has showcased renewed efforts in vigor. While bullying and mean behavior may be on the rise in our culture and in the world, the Middletown Public schools have been ever committed to fighting this rising tide. We need to do a better job of communicating to the public about these efforts."

BOE member Corinne Gill asked Otis several questions about how students or parents know what the process is to file a bullying complaint (in the student handbook and online), what response deadlines are specifically outlined (there aren't any), and who keeps track of the number of verified bullying reports in a given year. Otis reported that there were 5 cases in 2007-08, 1 in 2008-09, and 2 in 2009-10. Other BOE members commented positively on the new focus on "mean behaviors" and the effort to concentrate on school climate as a whole.

BOE Chairman Ted Raczka followed with several questions/comments of his own: "We start teaching anti-bullying in pre-K and all the way through high school, right? Is is fair to say that all of our students get this curriculum and all our teachers participate in it?" Otis replied yes, and Raczka continued, "Things are in fact improving?" Otis again replied yes. Raczka went on to say, "Could we do better? We probably could...we're trying to do better. But we live in a world where violence in the home is acceptable and that has a connection to this...I wish I had a magic wand to end this, but we're not going to do it in one day. We're doing as much if not more than other districts, and I just needed to speak so everyone knows that within the bounds of the law, we're doing everything we can."

BOE Member Sheila Daniels added, "We need to ask the community to help us, to impress on our young people that if you can't say something nice, don't speak." Finally, BOE Member Sally Boske asked Mindy Otis if the parent volunteer space on the Climate subcommittee was filled. Otis replied that it was not, and that she would love to see parents volunteer to help improve school climate (apparently the committee has great snacks at their meetings...).

This concluded the BOE's consideration of bullying in Middletown.


I had one quick minute to ask Chairman Raczka a few questions before the Board moved into Executive Session. Acknowledging that he could not give me specifics because of privacy issues, I asked him if he could confirm that everything is being done to resolve Monique McClain's case. He replied, "we are following our policies." I replied, "Well, that doesn't seem to be working out so well for her, does it? Raczka replied, "Well, it may not quite work out exactly the way people might want it to be resolved." I pressed further, "The girl's not even in school, so how can you say it's working out?" Raczka replied, "Well, I don't really know the details of the situation..." and then Superintendent Michael Frechette told him to stop talking and Raczka did.

I admit that I did not tape this conversation and that I may not have recalled it exactly as it happened. However, I am positive that I heard BOE Chairman Ted Raczka say that he did not know the details of Monique McClain's case, and I just cannot believe that could be true given the fact that a written appeal was made to the Board of Education on February 8th. Even if this isn't exactly what he said or even what he meant, the hovering presence of the Superintendent and his quick move to cut off what Raczka was trying to say left me with an overwhelming impression that something wasn't right. It seems like there's a firewall between the Superintendent and the BOE, and I can't imagine why that would be.

As frustrating as it seems, I understand the privacy issues and I get that bullying outside of school-sponsored events complicates things. I even understood what was meant by "it might not always get resolved the way some people want it to" (this refers to the victim wanting a resolution that may not be possible). It was lovely to hear the report on how much of our curriculum supports a positive school climate. However, THIS issue for THIS ONE CHILD is not yet resolved (the Superintendent told Channel 8 this himself on the 10 pm news), and we can't just pat ourselves on the back and say that overall, we're doing a great job. If even one child is bullied and the school system can't make it stop, can we really say our program is effective? There has to be a distinction between a general focus on a positive school climate and the specific focus of an individual case. If a wider focus on school climate makes us less effective at handling specific instances of severe bullying, how is that OK?

I will give Chairman Raczka credit for trying to highlight what the District has been doing in the general category of anti-bullying education, but he blew a perfect chance to reach out to the McClain family. I was left with the impression that the bullying presentation was designed to highlight what a great job the District has been doing, and no one had the guts to ask even one semi-difficult question about what happens if the bullying doesn't stop.

In my Public Session comments way at the beginning of the meeting and before the bullying presentation, I asked the Board to give us (the public) a "warm fuzzy" in the pits of our stomachs that they heard the McClain family's distress and that they were in fact doing everything they could. I acknowledged the privacy issue and accounted for a disparity between what the BOE could do and what they could talk about. I also reminded the BOE that they were elected officials and that they were accountable for doing the hard jobs we can't do. Sadly, I didn't walk away with what I was hoping for, and I'm not even the people who have to live with this every day. I am profoundly discouraged and disappointed, especially since Alycia McClain told me that one of Monique's friends was told that "she's next" since Monique isn't in school anymore. How can this be? How can this "mean behavior" continue for even one more minute? Why haven't these children been expelled according to the BOE's policy?

I'm actually not even sure what to say next because I don't know what else I could say that would be helpful. I'll just leave you with a comment offered to the BOE during the public session: "There's no reason you're not jumping out of your seat to protect this kid..."


Anonymous said...

What should the BOE do? The way I follow it seems to me the bullies are kids of those people who live off of the system break the rules, drink at home, and abuse each other. The bullies are just the results of society. I say shut off federal welfare. These bullies will see their parents making an honest living and working hard. Until then cases like this will continue to happen. The bullies know when and where they can bully and get away with it. Just like their parent know what to say to avoid a days work.

What can you do in this case? Be specfic...

Anonymous said...

"What can you do in this case? Be specific..."

Here's what to do:

1. Expel the students who are breaking the school rules (that is, the bullies). Expel them, send them away, forbid them from school grounds and activities.

2. Hold the bullies' parents responsible for their behavior and for damage that they cause. Let THEM be responsibile for, and bear the burden of, finding tutors, etc., for their kids.

3. Welcome Monique back to a bully-free school, where she can concentrate on learning.

4. Get rid of the cowardly, passive school board.

Is that specific enough?

Anonymous said...

I have said this before and am going to say it again...the 2 foot rule. It used to be that if a child did not know how to behave, they would have to be within two feet of the teacher, all day, or all week or all month, until the child has learned how to behave properly. Now, I believe it should be the parent that should have to attend school and supervise the child. If the parent cannot supervise the child the child is not allowed to come to school. I believe this would create a situation that would correct the problem. Getting the parent involved. It worked well in the past. Bet you it still would work. All this talk is just talk. BOE...take action, do something.

Elizabeth Bobrick said...

I'd like to respectfully ask Anonymous 12:09 to consider the implications of his/her post.

Is it a fact that the children who are bullying are in families that receive welfare? And if so, does it follow that a family receiving welfare is also necessarily alcoholic and abusive?

Do you yourself know any people who came from such a family on welfare, where there was violence and substance abuse? I do. They aren't bullies and never were. Some people who grew up in those circumstances are bullies, I'm sure. Lots of rich kids are, too.

My brother was bullied terribly in junior high by well-to-do kids. And there is mind-boggling bullying in wealthy and middle-class communities around us and all over the country.

Like you, I was raised to value the work ethic. We were also taught that being poor was not a moral failing. My parents grew up desperately poor.

There are a lot of assumptions behind your post. You could be speaking from facts, of course. Are you? (Only your conscience needs an answer.)

Mr. Fixit said...

As one of the "public" who spoke on Monique's behalf, and listened carefully to all the others doing the same, I was struck by the sight of the stoney-faced suits behind the conference table. It was obvious that they were uncomfortable - but had nothing to say on the subject.

I noted that my written communication to the Chair of the BOE on the subject at hand did not even gain a response, as one was never received; nor even an acknowledgement of its receipt. Is the BOE responsible to anyone???

Furthermore, the lengthy presentation re "School Climate" was little more than a self-aggrandizing pat-on-the-back for a school system which cannot bring itself to solve an existing situation which could well end in disaster for this child or any other put at risk by bullying (or "meanness" as the politically correct word seems to be).

Other than the profuse thanks I rec'd from Monique's family for speaking on her behalf (I had never met them before but was compelled to speak out on her behalf), the night was a big disappointment.

Anonymous said...

what else to do about creating a culture of respect in our schools? stop using the word "bullying"--it is a highly charged word that means different things to different people and instead say, "No mean-ness is allowed in our schools." Then expect that culture to start with the teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, paras on the playgrounds and with parents and students.

This is what I have a problem with; when a kindergarten teacher is still publicly shaming a 5 year old because he won't behave the way she wants him to behave by putting him in a virtual public time out through the entire school year, and it still does not work in the month of May, then the 50+ year old is the one with the behavior management deficiencies, not the 5 year old.

Our teachers need better training in how to more effectively manage behavior in our classrooms. Otherwise we are teaching kids how to become bullies in school.

And you should hear what bus drivers are screaming at elementary school children...these are the reasons why I took my child out of public school. Because of the adults in charge, not because of other kids.

David Sauer said...

The first poster asks a very good question, although his/her conclusion is way off base. Subsequent posters, however, have shown that the question really should be:

What should the BOE do that:
1. is legal
2. is within their power/control
3. is financially possible
4. hasn't already been done

Many of the comments on this subject fail to understand the constraints that are placed on the BOE by state and federal law. You want the BOE to expel bullies? Good luck with that. Due to state law expulsions for offenses that do not involve weapons or drugs are extradinarily difficult, ridiculously expensive and time consuming, and if the student is special ed it is probably easier to obtain a death penalty conviction than to expel the student. Even if you succeed, the expulsion is not permanent, it is only for a period of no more than one year. Further, who would you expel? The ringleaders have apparently moved to another district and their campaign is being carried on outside of school and by a fluid group of the bullies proxies. Others have suggested to make the bullies parent's responsible. Nice idea, but the board doesn't have any authority to compel a parent to do anything other than send their child to school. The board cannot make a parent come to school and supervise their child or make them financially responsible for the child's actions. If you are unhappy that the board doesn't put this student's situation on the agenda or respond to the public comments on the matter you should keep in mind that doing so would be a clear violation of federal law. The board is not allowed to discuss ANYTHING in public about an individual student.

This is a frustrating and hardbreaking situation. It is the natural response to rally the villagers, pass out the torches and pitchforks and demand the heads of the BOE and superintendent. Unfortunately this won't solve the problem. The problem of bullying has existed for centuries and it exists in every school in this country today. To suggest that the only problem is that the board doesn't care is to show that you do not grasp the problem. There are no easy answers. This problem is only going to be solved if changes are made in a lot of areas, including state and federal laws and regulations regarding education and state laws on juveniles. The problem is not the that the BOE doesn't care or is incompetent. We have some extradinarily bright, dedicated and hard working people on the Board. They are not going to be able to solve this problem alone, however. If this issue is important to you volunteer to be a parent representative on the BOE Climate committee. You will be shocked to learn how much state and federal law has tied the board's hands in order to generate statistics that give the appearance of success. Advocate for the changes in the law that would give the board the tools it needs to address the situation. This is the only way the problem will really be addressed.