The following are remarks made to the South Country Board of Education
on district management on June 18, 2014
by Wayne White, President of the Bellport Teachers Association
Good evening. My name is Wayne White, I am a first of all a proud educator at Bellport High School as well as the President of the Bellport Teachers Association. Before I begin, I want to thank Mr. Correa, Mrs. Schatzman, and Mrs. Mistler for all of their public service as a trustees for the board of education. Thank you for all of your service. However, I am here not only to address the situation at the high school this past Monday, a situation that any casual observer would have to call total chaos, but also a shift in the dealing with disruptive students district wide this year. These conversations I have had with Dr. Giani so what I am saying is nothing new and has been said during this past semester and this is a message everyone should hear. If you hadn’t heard, there were several points throughout the day that involved eruptions of disorder, usually beginning during the passing times between classes. Water was thrown, papers were scattered and crowds of hundreds of students pushed and shoved fellow students and staff members, including myself, in the hallways.
I called and cancelled my regularly scheduled meeting with Dr. Giani on Mondays as the safety and well being of staff and student was priority. I am 6'2", 225 pounds and I was overrun by the student stampede out of the cafeteria and into the halls. During that time, I had to stand over a girl that fell in the melee in order to prevent her from being trampled risking my own safety. I had to encourage Mr. Brady to remove himself from the situation after a bottle was thrown at him and another student threatened him physically. This particular student was restrained by other students. At several points, these hundreds of students defiantly went past the point of mischief to dangerous bedlam. It was not safe for anyone—students, teachers, secretaries, security and our two SROS to be in the hallways. By midday, classes needed to be held in rooms by teachers—which was the only way to preserve order—and a large police presence was needed just to get students out of the building and on to buses. Many students had to go into other teachers classrooms to who were not their teacher to escape what happened in the halls. It was miraculous that no serious injuries occurred. Unfortunately, the chaos got to the point in which the safest course of action was to admit that there was no longer any control at Bellport High School. Even our SROs determined that control was lost and backup was needed. If staff had tried to force students to comply, there would have certainly been violence amongst students and against staff after their observed behavior with authority figures in the building. All staff from teachers, security, aides, administrators, police, Nelson, and others worked together in the building to regain some control to protect our children who were and were not involved directly in this situation.
In my 15 years at Bellport High School, this is the second worst day of my teaching career in the high school. There was one other moment that was almost as chaotic. This occurred several years ago and required a similar lockdown and police assistance. However, that was a product of violent confrontations that started outside of school amongst a small group of students that moved into BHS. If you ask any honest member of the BHS community what led to this Monday’s chaos (which many of them are in the audience now), they will tell you the same story, whether they are teachers, security guards, secretaries or students—Monday was the climax of a year of lax discipline, a product of a lack of leadership in tackling problems that had been building for our 10 months of school this year. All board members and administrators have a responsibility to ask as many members of our school community if they agree with my assessment. “Do you think Monday’s chaos was a one day exception in which pranks went too far, or do you think it shed light on a larger discipline crisis at Bellport High School?” I am confident in what you’ll hear as the answer to that question. The question now is, how will we all work together to provide the leadership that was so sorely lacking this year in the field of discipline?
2013-14 has shown many examples of leadership in our district. We’ve been working together to improve instruction. We are making adjustments to address performance gaps in achievement. There have been several instructional initiatives that will seek to make our school more efficient and productive. But listen to this warning very carefully. None of these initiatives will succeed in a disorderly environment. Both Bellport Middle School and Bellport High School have failed to provide an orderly environment for their students, staff and community members. An orderly environment is one in which rules are obvious, and consequences are obvious and consistent. In a misguided attempt to handle some disruptive students with more compassion, we have allowed a feeling in those buildings that there are no rules for some. Also, some of the behavior of disruptive students has spread to students who are borderline which presents a bigger problem to students, staff, and the community in general. Some of these behaviors have also been seen in our elementary schools as you are aware of as well by letters you may have received from other buildings.
Now we are not powerless. School climates can be turned dramatically if a simple, clear and consistent approach is used to take even the lowest forms of disobedience seriously. We have seriously attempted to tackle truly difficult issues such as educating students in poverty and differentiation of instruction. But we have been lax in both the middle school and the high school in doing what should be easy—enforcing standards for hallway behavior, punishing those who come to school but do not go to class and drawing a line against open disrespect to all staff. We have also been lax in dealing with students on the elementary level who have been violent towards all building staff who have given up their own personal safety to protect other children, including the disruptive child. However, it is frustrating to hear that sometime these attacks are minimized in its perceived severity because someone doesn't believe that a 6 or 7 year old student can seriously injure an adult even though some staff has been sent to the doctor from being hit, kicked, bitten or choked.
Our problems with disorder have built all year, each time a student wasn’t disciplined for disrespect, every time there was not punishment for lingering in the hallways and every time a student was allowed to miss an unlimited amount of days of class without being dropped from a course. It will take all levels of staff address these problems, but leadership has to start at the administrative level. There are long term discipline goals such as RTI that are in the early stages of a multiyear process. This is very encouraging, but it cannot be mistaken for short term action that is desperately needed. If we do not begin in September with clear steps to create a feeling of order in all of our buildings, we should expect all our efforts to improve graduate rates, transform instruction and change climate will fail. Specifically, Board of Education members should demand the following easy-to-implement steps:·
-Daily hall sweeps,
-Following the attendance policy
If these administrative actions are implemented, I have full confidence in our students to conform to rules that are clear and consistently enforced. You will see the smart instructional moves we are working on bear fruit. Every teacher has heard hardworking students describe our lack of discipline and order with disgust this year. The children are craving leadership as well. These are the easy problems to tackle, it is simply a matter of will. The urgency of this situation requires new practices from day one in September—if the answer is to start a committee to look at the problem in September, you should expect to fail. If the answer is only a five year plan, you should expect to fail. We need short term action, not just long term planning. When Plan A miserably fails, the answer cannot be to try Plan A again.
The entire staff is ready to hear the plan as we begin next year before day one of school. If there isn’t one, all other initiatives will be weighed down by the background of disorder. Already, our recent events have probably had parents in kitchens and living rooms across the district discussing private school options. If there is a plan that is clear and consistent, all staff will join in the efforts.
When we work together in collaboration to create an orderly environment, we are fulfilling the first responsibility to our staff, the taxpayers and, most importantly, our students. I urge you to not stop your questioning until you have heard the specifics of how the 2014-15 school year will be different. I would like to once again invite you to participate in our Ed problems committee. This committee has been invaluable, maintaining an open and direct line of communication between the two constants in the South Country School District, the Board of Education and its teachers as well as following the chain of command with administration as we always have done in the past. And once again to emphasize, we need to see a plan ASAP in order to regain the trust and believe in this district we are proud to be a part of. Thank You.
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